THE MORNING PLUM:
Washington is abuzz with what we might call “tipping-point talk” — the idea that this time, really and truly, Republicans are on the verge of breaking with President Trump. The latest revelation stoking that chatter is the New York Times’s report that a memo by former FBI director James B. Comey indicated that Trump privately asked him to quash the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Russia ties.
Yes, some Republicans are speaking out more forcefully. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) now says that the scandals enveloping Trump are reaching “Watergate size and scale.” Other top Republicans are now calling for an independent commission or special prosecutor. And many analysts are discussing ways in which the latest Trump revelations — combined with Trump’s alleged demand for Comey’s loyalty — amount to obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offense.
But even if we do establish clear evidence that Trump obstructed justice, it is easy to discern, based on what we are already seeing, a way that Republicans ensure that Trump survives this.
In an interview with me, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) — the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — pointed out that establishing obstruction of justice requires demonstrating corrupt intent to obstruct, a high bar to clear. But more to the point, Schiff noted that, even if this were established, Republicans would then have the option of taking refuge in the argument that this should not override the election results — rather than conceding that their party’s president poses a serious enough threat to our democracy to warrant doing that.
“The more practical question is whether there is bipartisan recognition that the seriousness of that conduct warrants removal,” Schiff told me. He added that you could have “a sizable part of the country feel this is an effort to nullify the election by other means. That’s probably the most fundamental question of whether you’re meeting the standard of High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
“It’s been a constant refrain already by the president that the whole Russia investigation exists only because Democrats are mad about losing in the electoral college,” Schiff said. “Ultimately, the practical test for the Congress — and perhaps it is most pressing for the GOP members — is whether they think the conduct rises to the point that they can make the case back home that this is not about re-litigating the election; this is about a fundamental threat to our democracy.”
The wiggle room in proving obstruction of justice could end up meaning that, even if we come a lot closer to establishing that Trump did interfere in the manner reports have indicated, we could still genuinely fall short of proving his clear intent. More cynically, even if that standard is reasonably cleared, Republicans could take refuge in this murkiness and then buttress this position by arguing that we should not re-litigate the election simply due to Democratic sour grapes.
Remember, Trump has been assaulting our democracy on multiple fronts since the beginning, and Republicans have mostly looked the other way. There is an unfortunate tendency to cover these various stories as separate from one another, but Trump has abused his power in multiple ways that, ultimately, all trace back to the same autocratic impulse. In addition to the Russia affair, there’s also the unprecedented, middle-finger-brandishing lack of transparency around his tax returns, even as he backs tax reform that would deliver his family a massive windfall; the laughably substandard ethics arrangement for his businesses and the perpetuation of likely emoluments clause violations; and the continued use of diplomatic business to promote Mar-a-Lago and steer cash into his pockets.
All of these — taken along with the alleged interference in ongoing probes — add up to a level of autocratic, above-the-law contempt for our democracy that is larger than the sum of its parts. And Republicans have effectively shrugged off most of it for as long as possible. So it’s plausible that even if obstruction of justice were reasonably well established, they’d find a way to evade taking it to its logical conclusion.
“Up until this point, the Republican leadership have wanted to continue to prop up this president, and probably feel that their fortunes are tied to his,” Schiff said. “At the end of the day, the decision for the GOP leadership is: Are they devoted to the country and the Constitution, or are they more devoted to this president and their political fortunes?”
* COMEY WILL TESTIFY PUBLICLY, SCHIFF SAYS: In our interview today, Schiff also predicted with confidence that James B. Comey will testify publicly before Congress soon. Schiff said:
“He certainly is going to come back to the Congress to testify publicly. There are a number of committees that have equities here — the Intelligence Committee does, but so do the Judiciary Committee and Reform Committee in both Houses. I’m confident he’ll come back…it’s only a question of time before he comes before one committee or another.”
Meanwhile, I’ve asked spokespeople for the GOP chairs of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees if they support bringing Comey in to testify publicly. They declined to comment or didn’t answer.
* REPUBLICANS FEAR TRUMP COULD COST THEM MAJORITIES: The Washington Examiner talks to a number of Republicans who increasingly fear that Trump could get worse for them — a whole lot worse:
“You have this White House that is lurching from crisis to crisis, the image is of disarray – they can’t get their hands around the basic day-to-day agenda, and define the progress they have made,” Republican pollster David Winston said … “This is concerning and alarming,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said flatly. “We’re going to have to confront these issues as a Congress.”
We’re going to have to confront these issues as a Congress? You mean, by exercising oversight and accountability and so forth? Now there’s a thought.
* TRUMP LEFT HIS STAFF IN THE DARK ABOUT COMEY: Politico reports that when White House aides learned that the story of Comey’s memo was about to break, they tried to determine what happened, and then:
Aides rushed to ask Trump what he had actually told Comey. But the White House had no memos or tapes of the meeting to rebut the claims, several officials said. Trump didn’t even give an entire readout of his conversation, leaving staffers “actually unaware of what happened,” one official said. “It’s not like we were in on the meeting,” this person said. “We had no idea. We still don’t really know what was said.”
Maybe Trump didn’t want them to know what he told Comey?
* DID TRUMP OBSTRUCT JUSTICE? Trump allegedly demanded James Comey’s loyalty, and now Trump may have asked him to go soft on the Flynn probe. Charlie Savage notes that an intent to obstruct justice must be established:
Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor … was initially skeptical about whether the mere firing of Mr. Comey could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Trump had an improper mental state. But he said … that subsequent revelations have made the evidence much more robust. “The evidence of improper purpose has gotten much stronger since the day of Comey’s firing,” Mr. Buell said.
The idea is apparently that the combination of Trump’s requests from Comey helps build a case for intent.
* GOP LAWMAKER CALLS FOR INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), a deputy Republican whip, said this on CNN:
“Whether it’s an independent commission or special prosecutor — I’m not sure of the best venue — but I think it’s time that we do whatever is necessary that when this is over, we give the American people that justice, either way it goes, has been served.”
Okay … does House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) agree?
* WALL STREET GIVES UP ON TAX OVERHAUL: Politico delivers the tragic news:
Executives, lobbyists and Wall Street analysts increasingly believe the administration — distracted by repeated crises while facing a short and crowded legislative calendar — will be unable to deliver on Trump’s promise to slash corporate and individual tax rates this year and ignite significantly faster economic growth. The main hope now in corporate America and on Wall Street is that the White House and Congress manage to bypass a scary fight over raising the nation’s debt limit this summer, keep the government open and avoid any major foreign policy crisis.
At this rate, if we can merely avoid those things, we should consider ourselves very fortunate.
* GOP IS HANGING ON FOR DEAR LIFE, GOP SENATOR SAYS: CNN talked to GOP senators about the wild ride Trump is taking them on, and this happened:
One senator resorted to mime to describe his reaction. He mimicked a cat, claws out, hanging on for dear life by clinging to a tree. “We’re all just like this,” the senator told CNN, shaking his head.
If only this senator belonged to an institution that is empowered to place a check on the president whom Republicans now describe — publicly and privately — as completely out of control.
* AND OFFICIALS STRUGGLE TO KEEP TRUMP FOCUSED: Reuters reports this startling detail about how officials work to try to keep Trump focused on briefings:
Conversations with some officials who have briefed Trump and others who are aware of how he absorbs information portray a president with a short attention span. He likes single-page memos and visual aids like maps, charts, graphs and photos. National Security Council officials have strategically included Trump’s name in “as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,” according to one source, who relayed conversations he had with NSC officials.
It’s depressing that this is even plausible.