Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Plum Line | Opinion

As Mueller closes in, Trump prepares his base for the worst

By Greg Sargent

August 7, 2017 at 10:43 AM

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President Trump likes to trumpet his "tremendous" support and strong base, but polls show that his approval rating is declining, even among key demographics that voted for him in 2016. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump is again attacking the media this morning, and his broadsides carry a newly ominous edge: He is both faulting the media for allegedly downplaying the size and intensity of support from his base and accusing them of trying to deliberately weaken that support for him.

This comes some 24 hours after Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein made big news by telling “Fox News Sunday” that if the special counsel finds evidence of crimes in the course of his probe into Russian sabotage of our election, it may be within the scope of his investigation to pursue them.

In these seemingly disparate developments, it is hard not to discern the potential for a volatile, combustible combination.

Because Trump is undermining our democratic norms and processes in so many ways, it is often easy to focus on each of them in isolation, rather than as part of the same larger story. But, taken together, they point to a possible climax in which Trump, cornered by revelations unearthed by Robert S. Mueller III’s probe and by ongoing media scrutiny, seeks to rally his supporters behind the idea that this outcome represents not the imposition of accountability by functioning institutional safeguards, but rather an effort to steal the election from him — and from them.

Related: From ‘I need loyalty’ to ‘Witch Hunt’: Trump’s second 100 days, in his words and ours

On ABC’s “This Week,” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway yesterday dismissed the “entire Russia investigation” as a “total fabrication” to “excuse” Hillary Clinton’s loss. This echoed Trump himself, who recently told a rally that the probe is an effort to “cheat” his supporters out of their legitimately elected leadership (i.e., him) with a “fake story” that is “demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”

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Trump administration officials and senators from both parties on Aug. 6 commented on proposals in the Senate to limit President Trump's ability to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

It bears repeating that Mueller’s investigation is looking at how a hostile foreign power may have sabotaged our democracy, and at whether the Trump campaign colluded with it, and at conduct by Trump himself that came after the election: Whether the firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey after a demand for his loyalty was part of a pattern of obstruction of justice. The first of these has been attested to by our intelligence services, and evidence of the second (at least in the form of a willingness to collude) and the third of these has been unearthed by dogged scrutiny by news outlets. It is hardly an accident that Trump continues to cast doubt on the credibility of both those institutions, even as he and his spokespeople continue to cast the entire affair as an effort to reverse the election by illegitimate means.

This threatens damage on multiple levels. By casting the entire Russia story as fiction, Trump seeks to undermine the credibility of efforts to determine how our electoral system might be vulnerable to further attacks, separate and irrespective of what is learned about the Trump campaign’s conduct, possibly making it less likely that we secure our system against any such future sabotage.

We don’t know what all the ongoing scrutiny will produce in the way of revelations. But if it does produce any serious wrongdoing by Trump and/or his campaign — or even evidence of serious misconduct that is not criminal — it’s not difficult to imagine what might happen next. Trump’s advisers regularly tell us he will cooperate with Mueller’s probe and play down the possibility of any effort to remove the special counsel. But Trump has confirmed that he is furious with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for failing to protect him from the Russia investigation. That Trump confirmed this publicly only further underscores that he has zero sense of any obligation to the public to follow any rules of conduct, and plainly views any efforts to hold him accountable to those rules as illegitimate.

Conservative writer Matt Lewis floats a scenario in which Mueller, under pressure to produce results, slips into prosecutorial overreach, giving Trump voters legitimate reasons to feel that the presidency is being stolen from them. It is fair to worry about such an outcome, and we must remember that we are far from knowing the full truth about what happened in 2016. But it’s also easy to envision the flip side: Trump demagoguing his supporters into a frenzy of rage, at rallies that are exactly like the ones we’ve seen in recent days, in the face of legitimate revelations.

To be sure, there are new signs that Republicans in Congress are taking steps to set up safeguards, should Trump try to remove Mueller. There is reassuring evidence that our institutions are holding — for now, anyway — and as Brian Beutler notes, it’s likely that more future revelations about Trump’s unfitness for the presidency will further undercut his efforts to cast institutions holding him accountable as illegitimate. But Trump is already giving every indication that he will go all out in trying. And how much damage that will cause is anyone’s guess.

* NEW YORK TIMES DENOUNCES TRUMP’S UNPRECEDENTED LYING: The Times has a big piece taking stock of the unprecedented nature of Trump’s nonstop lying and fraudulence, with some good points from presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:

The glaring difference between Mr. Trump and his predecessors is the sheer magnitude of falsehoods and exaggerations … That leaves scholars like Ms. Goodwin to wonder whether Mr. Trump … has forever changed what Americans are willing to tolerate from their leaders. “What’s different today and what’s scarier today is these lies are pointed out, and there’s evidence that they’re wrong,” she said. “And yet because of the attacks on the media, there are a percentage of people in the country who are willing to say, ‘Maybe he is telling the truth.’ ”

And among GOP voters, it’s working.

* WHAT IS TRUMP DOING ABOUT ATTACKS ON NEXT ELECTION? Former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson made an important point on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday:

“There is still … a threat out there to our election infrastructure that this administration needs to address. … I’m concerned that we are almost as vulnerable perhaps now as we were six or nine months ago. … we need a national campaign from the president, from the next secretary of homeland security, to really address this problem.”

The fact that Trump continues to suggest there was no Russian sabotage at all should intensify scrutiny of what his administration is doing to safeguard the next election.

* TRUMP LAGS FAR BEHIND IN NOMINATIONS: CNN runs the numbers:

As of August 4, when the Senate left town for its August recess, Trump has nominated 277 people for key posts, has had 124 confirmed, and has withdrawn eight of the nominations … The Partnership for Public Service has identified 577 executive branch positions as being particularly essential — and Trump has only successfully filled about a fifth of them.

As CNN notes, his last three predecessors had far more nominations and confirmations at this point. Good thing we have a businessman in office to show those politicians how to run things.

* SHOULD PROGRESSIVES PRIORITIZE SINGLE PAYER? Paul Krugman argues that getting to single payer is much harder than many on the left acknowledge, and suggests prioritizing more spending on children instead:

A commitment to universal health coverage — bringing in the people currently falling through Obamacare’s cracks — should definitely be a litmus test. But single-payer, while it has many virtues, isn’t the only way to get there … I’d enhance the A.C.A., not replace it, although I would strongly support reintroducing some form of public option … if it were up to me, I’d talk about improving the A.C.A., not ripping it up and starting over, while opening up a new progressive front on child care.

Of course, the deeper dispute on the left revolves around whether this can sufficiently secure health care as a right; the Affordable Care Act attempts to approximate this right around existing constraints.

* TRUMP KEEPS ON LYING ABOUT OBAMACARE PAYMENTS: Trump has been slamming the cost-sharing reductions that subsidize out-of-pocket costs for low-income people, calling them “bailouts.” Glenn Kessler has a good fact-check:

Trump is misusing the term “bailout.” Insurance companies don’t make money through cost-sharing — they are being paid back for money they’ve already spent on behalf of people who purchased their health plans. The president either doesn’t understand the process or is being purposely misleading. He earns Four Pinocchios.

Don’t forget that these lies are part of a Trump campaign to deliberately sow uncertainty about the CSRs, driving up premiums or causing insurers to exit in the quixotic quest for more leverage.

* AND TRUMP SABOTAGE OF ACA CONTINUES APACE: A good Post report takes stock of all the ways the administration is sabotaging the ACA. The biggest is through uncertainty around the CSRs:

Without those subsidies … policy premiums are widely predicted to spike for 2018, and more insurers may defect. White House aides had said a decision would be made last week, but none was announced. Insurers planning to participate in the marketplaces next year must submit final rates to states in less than 10 days.

And once again, there is no rationale whatsoever for this course of action, which could harm millions. It won’t give Trump leverage over Democrats, and Trump has no inkling of what he’d want a deal with Dems to look like to begin with.

President Trump arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York to speak to the media about infrastructure and respond to questions about the violence, injuries and deaths at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump, center, delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower. Standing alongside him are, from left, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Trump speaks about the violence in Charlottesville as he talks to the media. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks to the news media about the protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, stops to respond to more questions about his responses to the violence in Charlottesville as he leaves a news conference at Trump Tower. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
At the White House, President Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing Chinas trade practices. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump salutes as he disembarks from Marine One at the White House. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville that turned deadly Saturday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, shake hands with military veterans after signing the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act in Bedminster, N.J. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump attends a workforce-development discussion at his club in Bedminster, N.J. From left: senior adviser Jared Kushner, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the president, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, aide Andrew Bremberg and Ivanka Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. AmbassadorNikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump and Vice President Pence arrive to speak with reporters before a security briefing at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump, accompanied by Pence, speaks to reporters in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump talks about North Korea during a briefing on the opioid crisis at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Bedminster for vacation. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice at a rally in Huntington. Justice, a Democrat, said he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Trump listens to a presentation by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin during a VA telehealth event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the telehealth event. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.), left, and David Perdue (R-Ga.), speaks in the Roosevelt Room during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, joined by Cotton, speaks in the Roosevelt Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, left, and adviser Ivanka Trump speaks during a White House event with owners of small businesses. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
New White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kellys private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to well-wishers after dining at Trump International Hotel in Washington. (Chris Kleponis/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump speaks to law enforcement officials about the MS-13 street gang on the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, N.Y. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Police applaud a line by Trump during remarks about his proposed government effort against the MS-13 gang at a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Brentwood. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump speaks with reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after firing Reince Priebus and naming Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly as his new chief of staff. (Evan Vucci/AP)
At the White House, Trump welcomes Jennifer Scalise, wife of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot in June at a congressional baseball practice. The ceremony honored first responders who helped during the shooting in Alexandria, Va. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump presents the Medal of Valor to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner during the ceremony honoring first responders at the shooting that took place during a GOP baseball team practice. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump greets, from left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn, in the East Room of the White House after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for the electronics giant. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Supporter Geno DiFabio speaks with Trump. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
From left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner attend a meeting with the Lebanese prime minister in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the groups national jamboree in West Virginia. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
From the Blue Room of the White House, the president urges Senate Republicans to move forward with legislation to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), second from left, stand for the colors during the commissioning ceremony of the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Trump greets guests during a meeting in the Oval Office with survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.

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