The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Donald Trump is suddenly looking like a very weak autocrat


President Trump once again unleashed a fearsome barrage of tweets on Wednesday morning. The target was the New York Times’s new report that intelligence officials have established contacts between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign officials during the campaign.

Trump attacked the news media again, railing that “the fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred.” He also blasted the intelligence services, claiming that they are “illegally” giving information to the media, which, he opined, is “just like Russia.”

This has become a pattern, in which Trump deals with setbacks by lashing out at other institutions, including ones that can function as a check on his power. When the courts blocked his immigration ban, he blasted both the courts and the news media for making us less safe, in what seemed to be designed to lay the groundwork to blame them for a future terrorist attack, a move that even some Republicans criticized for its authoritarian tendencies. This appeared to be a test run of sorts, in which Trump was experimenting with how far he could go in delegitimizing the institutions that might act as a check on his power later.

The Flynn crisis paralyzes the White House

But as a test run, for now, at least, it is failing. Trump’s unchecked antics on multiple fronts are suddenly making him look like a very weak autocrat wannabe.

The Times’ new report is actually pretty carefully drawn. It notes that phone records and intercepted calls show “repeated contacts” between members of the Trump campaign and “senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” These were discovered at around the time that evidence emerged that Russia was trying to interfere in the election. The report stressed that intelligence officials did not name particular Trump campaign officials, other than Paul Manafort, and have not seen evidence of collusion (“so far”) designed to influence our political process.

What led to Mike Flynn's undoing? (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

CNN also weighed in with a similar investigation, reporting that “high-level advisers close to” Trump were in “constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.” CNN added that Trump had been briefed on this after the election. If that last detail is true, then it means Trump knows that intelligence officials have, indeed, concluded that this happened. Which might explain why some of his tweets today sort of function as confirmation of the stories, by blasting intel agencies for leaking classified information.

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Indeed, the lashing out is beginning to look less and less fearsome, and more and more impulsively buffoonish and self-defeating. And there’s a broader pattern developing here, one that undermines a key narrative about the Trump presidency, in which Trump is pursuing strategic disruption and breaking all the old rules and norms to further an unconventional presidency that is designed to render the old way of doing business irrelevant. It’s obvious that all of this is now actively undermining his own designs, on multiple fronts.

Consider: The use of the White House bully pulpit by Trump and his top aides to interfere in a dispute between Nordstrom and Ivanka Trump — which seemed intended as a big middle finger to the pointy-headed ethical norms police — resulted in Republicans condemning it. The trip to Mar-a-Lago with the Japanese prime minister — another intended sign that Trump will damn well use the presidency to enrich himself if he pleases, by turning his own resort into an official court of sorts while pocketing the profits from it — ended up getting marred by the surprise North Korea ballistic missile test. This made his administration look incompetent, chaotic, unprepared and unconcerned about basic security protocol.

The administration’s handling of the Michael Flynn fiasco was a mess that was partially created by Trump himself. We now know he had been briefed three weeks ago that the Justice Department concluded Flynn had misled Vice President Pence about contacts with the Russian ambassador. Yet Flynn remained, and new reporting indicates that this was driven in part because of high-level White House skepticism about the Justice Department’s warnings — something that likely was an outgrowth of Trump’s refusal to entertain inconvenient views. The rollout of Trump’s travel ban — the first high-level exercise in translating Trumpism into reality — was a legal and substantive disaster, largely because of a lack of concern over basic legal and process niceties that also reflected Trump’s distracted, chaotic leadership style.

Spicer denies Trump campaign communicated with Russia before election (Video: The White House)

Meanwhile, today’s events are a reminder that the press is bearing down hard on the Russia story, which may make it harder and harder for Republicans to continue resisting a full accounting.

To be sure, Trump is getting a lot of his Cabinet nominees confirmed. It’s likely that Trump and Republicans will win a lot of victories before long, ones that will be very demoralizing to Democrats. It is also true that the White House has at its disposal a tremendous range of tools to take control of events and news cycles, thus turning things around. So all of this might change soon enough. A doubling-down on Trump’s worst policies, perhaps in the form of a newly implemented and then expanded “Muslim ban,” or in the form of stepped-up deportations, remain real possibilities. A terrorist attack could empower Trump and lead to far worse.

But right now, Trump looks weaker, less effective and even more ridiculous than anyone might have anticipated — and it happened surprisingly quickly, too.


* DEMS PUSH FOR INDEPENDENT PROBE: The Senate Intelligence Committee will investigate Russian meddling into the election, but Carl Hulse reports that Democrats think this could bury the findings and want a more independent, transparent investigation:

Some…Democrats are not happy that the bulk of the inquiry will remain the purview of the intelligence panel given that much of its deliberations are conducted…away from the prying eyes of the news media and the public….Creating a special committee or commission would require the consent of both parties, and the idea is more likely to gain traction if [investigators] uncover compelling evidence that would make it hard to resist demands for a deeper, more public investigation.

This is where the press (and leakers to them) may end up playing a key role — in uncovering more details that make it harder for Republicans to duck the need for a full accounting.

* WHITE HOUSE WAS SKEPTICAL OF FLYNN WARNING: The Post reports that senior White House officials didn’t believe the Justice Department’s warnings that Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, which is why he remained in place:

Within the White House, the matter was viewed skeptically…Over the next two weeks, the officials said, Flynn was asked multiple times about what exactly he had said. He brushed aside the suggestion that he had spoken about sanctions with the ambassador — denials that kept him afloat within the White House even as he was being actively evaluated, they said.

The White House claims Trump asked Flynn to resign because his trust “eroded,” but the precipitating event was probably that the news of the Justice Department’s warning went public.

* WHO IS TARGETED BY TRUMP’S DEPORTATIONS? Trump says his new deportation raids are aimed only at “hardened criminals,” but Michelle Ye Hee Lee finds a more complex story, in which Trump is going beyond Obama’s enforcement priorities:

ICE has always targeted dangerous criminals in enforcement priorities. The recent arrests, however, did include people who would not have fallen under Obama’s narrower enforcement priorities….such people — which DHS has categorized as 25 percent of the arrests — had lesser charges and noncriminal convictions, and are not the “very, very hardened criminals” that Trump describes.

Trump and his advisers are in many ways keeping this ambiguous, suggesting it may be a test run for expanded deportations later.

* MITCH McCONNELL IS JUST FINE WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP: The Senate majority leader said this on “Morning Joe” today:

“He’s different. But I like what he’s doing. I like the attack on overregulation. I like the cabinet appointments. I think the Supreme Court nominee was superb. I think he picked the single most outstanding circuit judge in America to be on the Supreme Court.”

The real question is how much longer Republicans can resist exercising real oversight simply because they like Trump’s agenda.

* IS CORPORATE AMERICA WORRIED ABOUT TRUMP ON TRADE? Ben White reports that corporate executives are increasingly worried about Trump’s “nationalist” agenda on trade, but he also adds this little tidbit:

Corporate lobbyists privately say they expect that more strident views on trade and immigration inside the White House, championed by top advisers including…Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, will eventually give way to more moderate approaches favored by National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin at Treasury.

A reminder: Just because Trump says he will renegotiate our trade deals doesn’t mean he’ll do so in the interests of workers. He could do this in a way that makes corporations happier.

* NO MORE KELLYANNE CONWAY ON ‘MORNING JOE’? Mediaite flags an interesting moment on “Morning Joe“: Mika Brzezinski seeming to suggest that Kellyanne Conway will no longer be welcome on the show because she lies so much:

“I know for a fact she tries to book herself on this show; I won’t do it…Every time I’ve ever seen her on television, something’s askew, off, or incorrect…I will say: Kellyanne Conway does not need to text our show, just as long as I’m on it, because it’s not happening here.”

No word yet on whether this is official policy, but it’s an interesting move: Will other networks follow suit?

* QUOTE OF THE DAY, BOUNDLESS-GOP-HYPOCRISY EDITION: Kurt Bardella, a former senior Republican House aide, calls on House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz and other Republicans to exercise real oversight on Trump:

“When the tragedy of Benghazi unfolded…Jason Chaffetz was rushing to every news camera he could find to call for investigation. The litany of conflicts-of-interest and legitimate security questions that exist but have gone unanswered in the Trump Administration are more than enough grounds for numerous investigations and hearings.”

Yes, but the difference here is that this president will sign GOP bills that cut taxes for the rich and shred regulations and the safety net. Duh!