THE MORNING PLUM:
A few Republican senators heroically ventured on to the Sunday shows to profess deep concern about President Trump’s abrupt firing of the man overseeing the investigation into the small matter of whether his campaign colluded with a foreign power to undermine our democracy. Meanwhile, the New York Times assures us that GOP senators are “increasingly unnerved” by Trump’s “volatility” and are “starting to show signs of breaking away from him.”
That’s nice. But until GOP lawmakers support a full and independent probe into the Russia affair — not to mention real oversight of all the other ways in which Trump is shredding our democratic norms — they are essentially complicit in his ongoing abuses of power. Can this go on forever?
Maybe not. Here’s why: ABC News is now reporting that associates of the fired former FBI director, James B. Comey, say he wants to testify publicly before Congress, and the Senate Intelligence Committee — which is probing the Russia story — seems like the right venue. Among other things, Comey will almost certainly address explosive but disputed reports over whether Trump demanded loyalty from him during a private dinner in January, as Comey’s associates have claimed.
Ron Wyden, a hard-charging member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, intends to use this moment to press Comey to detail what exactly happened in this exchange, a spokesman for the Oregon Democrat says.
“If and when Comey testifies, Senator Wyden will ask him if Donald Trump demanded a loyalty pledge,” Wyden spokesman Keith Chu told me this morning.
If Comey asserts in public that Trump did demand loyalty from him — which is plausible — consider what could happen then. Trump responded to initial reports of that demand with a threatening tweet that implied Trump may have been taping private conversations. If Comey goes public, the pressure on the White House to release these tapes — or admit they don’t exist — should intensify. Republican lawmakers — who already expressed discomfort with the firing and with Trump’s threat — will now be expected to comment about Comey’s on-the-record assertion that the president demanded a loyalty pledge from him.
Some legal experts have suggested such a loyalty demand could constitute obstruction of justice. It isn’t just that FBI directors (who serve insulating 10-year terms) aren’t supposed to be political loyalists. It’s also that Trump would have demanded loyalty from the man overseeing the FBI probe into his own campaign, even as that man (Comey) knew full well that Trump has the power to fire him, which Trump has now exercised, explicitly because of Comey’s handling of the investigation. This undermines basic norms dictating a clear separation between the White House and law enforcement and raises doubts as to whether the FBI’s investigation can proceed free of political interference.
A serious probe of this whole affair by an independent commission or similar would look not just at possible Russia-Trump campaign collusion. It would also seek to establish whether Trump demanded Comey’s loyalty. It would seek a full accounting of Trump’s decision to fire Comey, and what sort of role Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, played in carrying that out. That latter question matters, since Sessions was supposed to recuse himself from the investigation, and any role Rosenstein played in the political hatcheting of Comey could compromise his role in overseeing the continuing FBI probe.
But some GOP leaders continue to resist this full accounting. The other day, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) responded to the Comey firing by claiming: “I’m focusing on what’s in my control, and that is what is Congress doing to solve people’s problems.” As Brian Beutler aptly points out, by saying the Comey firing is not in “his control,” Ryan is actually “denuding himself” of the congressional GOP’s oversight power and responsibilities:
What Ryan has done is surrender his own fundamental powers to Trump, knowing that people he likes and respects are telling reporters that Trump’s presence in the White House terrifies them.
Indeed, Trump may take this as a sign that Republicans will not exercise any meaningful oversight even if the revelations grow worse. The larger pattern here is crucial to appreciate. Trump is constantly trying to probe what abuses our institutions will let him get away with, whether it’s the in-your-face use of important diplomatic business to promote Mar-a-Lago and steer cash into his own pockets; the refusal to release his tax returns while advancing a tax plan that could deliver him and his family an enormous windfall; the constant lies about millions voting illegally in our election, which undermine public confidence in our democracy, and which he will now try to legitimize with a “voter fraud” commission; and, now, the firing of Comey.
Republicans have tolerated (or even embraced) all of these things, and Trump would be reasonable in concluding that they have no intention of ever mounting a check on his power, no matter what he does. The question is whether a dramatic moment from Comey — in which he asserts that the president did, in fact, demand his loyalty — is enough to change this.
* ANOTHER POLL FINDS TRUMP’S APPROVAL IN THE TOILET: A new NBC News-WSJ poll finds Trump’s approval at 39-54. Note these numbers on the firing of James Comey and the GOP health bill:
Asked whether Mr. Trump fired the FBI director to slow down the agency’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, 46% said that was the case, while 36% disagreed … Some 23% said the GOP health-care legislation was a good idea, while 48% said it was a bad idea.
So pluralities think that Trump is interfering with the Russia probe and reject his repeal-and-replace push.
* CLAPPER: OUR DEMOCRACY IS UNDER ASSAULT ‘INTERNALLY’: ON CNN’s “State of the Union,” former director of National Intelligence James Clapper flatly stated that our institutions are under attack from within:
“In many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally — and that’s the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system — and I think as well our institutions are under assault internally … the founding fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances. And I feel as though that’s under assault and is eroding.”
Asked directly whether he meant “internally from the president,” Clapper responded: “Exactly.”
* DEMOCRATIC RECRUITMENT LOOKS STRONG: National Journal reports that a number of strong candidates are gearing up to challenge House Republicans, and notes that GOP efforts to recruit candidates against vulnerable Democrats is faltering. As one GOP strategist put it:
“The environment is really bad for Republicans right now, and that will weigh heavily for anyone considering any race. The one thing that Republicans can control is the quality of their candidates and quality of campaigns being run. Right now, neither are adequate.”
If Trump’s numbers keep sliding, and the revelations (and all around craziness) around the Russia probe continue, look for this trend to intensify.
* TRUMP’S ‘MUSLIM BAN’ IS BACK IN COURT: Bloomberg reports that government lawyers today will try to persuade the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s decision to block the second version of Trump’s travel ban:
At the heart of the legal arguments is the question of whether Trump’s comments as a candidate can be used as evidence that his travel order was founded on religious bias, in violation of the First Amendment … The Justice Department argues that his remarks as a candidate aren’t relevant to his actions as president. Until last week, the Trump campaign website included language promising a ban on Muslim immigrants.
The crux is whether the ban is discriminatory in intent and effect, and whether Trump’s own words prove legally decisive, we all know perfectly well what its goal really is.
* GOP PLANS HUGE CUTS TO PROGRAMS FOR POOR: Politico reports that House Republicans are quietly looking for ways to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from programs that help the poor, such as food stamps. Note this, on Medicare:
Atop that, GOP budget writers will also likely include Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal to essentially privatize Medicare in their fiscal 2018 budget, despite Trump’s unwavering rejection of the idea. While that proposal is more symbolic and won’t become law under this budget, it’s just another thorny issue that will have Democrats again accusing Republicans of “pushing Granny off the cliff.”
If there’s anything that might get Trump voters to finally figure out how badly they’ve been scammed, it might be a broken promise not to cut Medicare.
* TRUMP IS BOTH AUTHORITARIAN AND INCOMPETENT: E.J. Dionne Jr. points out that we have been debating whether the real threat from Trump is his authoritarianism or his incompetence, and notes that the Comey firing has reminded us of the seriousness of the former:
Last week, the argument took a sharp, decisive and chilling turn. Trump proved that we can never be lulled into losing focus on the ways he could undermine the rules and principles of our democratic republic … Of course, Trump can be fairly regarded as both incompetent and authoritarian. We may be saved by the fact that the feckless Trump is often the authoritarian Trump’s worst enemy. If we’re lucky, Trump’s astonishing indiscipline will be his undoing.
Of course, even if Trump’s incompetence and indiscipline do prove to be his undoing, they could do incalculable damage to the country in the process.
* AND THE TRUMPIAN ANECDOTE OF THE DAY, WE-ARE-ALL-DOOMED EDITION: Shane Goldmacher brings us this doozy:
K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, [gave] Trump a printout of two Time magazine covers. One, supposedly from the 1970s, warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming, according to four White House officials familiar with the matter.
Trump quickly got lathered up about the media’s hypocrisy. But there was a problem. The 1970s cover was fake, part of an Internet hoax that’s circulated for years. Staff chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it.
Good to see those White House staffers are on the case! But it would be nice if they would also consider trying to persuade Trump that climate change is real. A lot is riding on that, you know.