THE MORNING PLUM:
The appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian meddling in the election puts the Trump presidency in substantially greater peril than it was in only 24 hours ago. But, remarkably enough, this did not even have to happen at all — it only happened because the unhinged behavior of President Trump himself made it happen.
Yet it’s not clear that Trump’s less-than-vise-like grip on reality permits him to even grasp this.
Trump unleashed two tweets Thursday morning responding to the news of the appointment, which was made by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein after days of deafening criticism. Trump claimed: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel [sic, or perhaps more appropriately, sick] appointed!” He then added: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
Separately, The Post reports that Trump is raging at his staff for failing to mitigate his “stumbles.” Why? Because “Trump largely thinks that his recent mishaps are not substantive but simply errors of branding and public relations, according to people close to him and the White House.”
But, despite Trump’s suggestion that he is being victimized by a witch hunt, and that a more adept PR strategy could minimize the damage, this is a situation entirely of Trump’s own making. And each of Trump’s actions leading up to this moment are rooted deep in Trump’s autocratic and authoritarian impulses; his total contempt for basic institutional processes; and his tendency, when his sense of grievance strikes, to slip into a delusional belief that he can overwhelm the institutional independence of his persecutors the way he might steamroll someone in a business deal.
Let’s trace the basic arc of this whole story. The special counsel might not be happening if Trump had not abruptly fired former FBI director James B. Comey. The reporting indicates that Trump was driven to do this out of grievance-laden rage at Comey for failing to make the Russia probe disappear (Comey isn’t supposed to do that at Trump’s behest, and firing him isn’t going to do it either). So this was rooted in crazy, and didn’t have to happen.
More to the point, the manner in which Trump fired Comey led directly to the special counsel. Trump had made the decision and then instructed Rosenstein to produce the bogus rationale for it (Comey’s botched handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe). Trump then blithely conceded on national television that the real reason was Comey’s handling of the Russia probe. He was either unaware that this might be a problem, or didn’t care, because, well, you can take the rule of law and shove it. All this unleashed a tirade of criticism arguing that Rosenstein, having helped provide a cover story for Trump (which Trump himself then blew up), is too compromised to oversee the continuing FBI probe. This surely helped bring about the special counsel’s appointment — and Trump authored it.
After that, Comey associates retaliated by leaking word that Trump had demanded Comey pledge his loyalty at a private dinner in January. And after that, Comey associates leaked word of a memo in which Comey asserted that Trump had tried to persuade him to quash the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Russia ties. To be fair, we don’t know if either of these things happened. But if they did, which is perfectly plausible, these things, too, appear rooted in Trump’s autocratic contempt for basic institutional processes. And we will soon hear from Comey himself on these matters when he testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Trump has created a problem for himself in yet another way, too: He denied asking Comey for a loyalty pledge by vaguely threatening to release alleged tapes of their conversation. Now, if Comey publicly attests to that pledge, the White House will be forced to produce these tapes or admit they don’t exist, and it’s very likely that neither of those outcomes would turn out well for Trump.
The point is not just that Trump’s actions are entirely to blame for the appointment of the special counsel. It’s also that there are no indications that Trump even understands this. And on top of that, these actions themselves — which simply did not have to happen — will now likely be probed by the special counsel, too.
* SPECIAL COUNSEL’S PROBE COULD INCLUDE OBSTRUCTION: Rosenstein’s order appointing the special counsel says he will look at “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” The Lawfare blog explains what this really means:
This should allow Mueller to take on whatever matters come up and expand his jurisdiction within reason to include new developments in what appears from the press to be a sprawling morasse of matters. It is certainly capacious enough to include any allegations of obstruction of the investigation that Mueller might want to look into.
In other words, the special counsel may well be looking at what Trump might have done to interfere with the FBI’s investigation — the firing of Comey, as well as the alleged demand for Comey’s loyalty and insistence that he shut down the Flynn probe. All these potentially rise to obstruction of justice. And a special counsel is now probing them.
* TRUMP WANTED TO ‘FIGHT BACK’ AGAINST SPECIAL COUNSEL: The New York Times recounts what happened when Trump was told that a special counsel had been appointed to examine the Russia affair:
Mr. Trump reacted calmly but defiantly, according to two people familiar with the situation, saying he wanted to “fight back.” He quickly summoned his top advisers, most of whom recommended that he adopt a conciliatory stance. But his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had pushed Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey, urged the president to counterattack, according to two senior administration officials. After a brief discussion, however, the majority prevailed.
How long until Trump’s tweets directly target Mueller?
* TRUMP CAMPAIGN HAD UNDISCLOSED CONTACTS WITH RUSSIANS: Reuters scoops:
Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters. The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators …
The calls were about mending ties between the two countries and don’t show collusion, but this may increase pressure for a fuller accounting of interactions with Russia around the election.
* ISRAELI OFFICIALS ‘FUMING’ ABOUT TRUMP INTEL LEAK: The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. officials are trying to assess the damage done by Trump’s sharing of classified information with the Russians, which came from Israel:
Privately, Israeli intelligence officials are fuming, one of the U.S. officials said, having worried for months that Mr. Trump would expose state secrets, even unwittingly, because of his lack of experience in handling classified information and his propensity to shoot from the hip.
The source is seen as valuable in providing information about Islamic State plots, and the question is whether the source will be compromised in some way. But remember, Trump is tough on terror!
* KOCH BROTHERS GIVE TRUMP BACKUP ON TAX REFORM: USA Today reports that the powerful political network run by billionaire Charles Koch is launching a multimillion-dollar campaign to help push Trump’s tax reform plan through Congress:
Koch, who viewed Trump’s candidacy warily, now is racing to build public and congressional support for plans to overhaul the tax code. Trump’s one-page tax blueprint, released last month, includes plans to slash the corporate tax rate, reduce taxes for high-income earners and abolish the federal estate tax.
The Kochs once viewed Trump as some kind of ideological betrayer of conservatism, but these days, they sure do like those tax cuts Trump is pushing.
* WE NEED MORE THAN JUST A SPECIAL COUNSEL: E.J. Dionne Jr. makes an important point:
The naming of an independent counsel cannot become an excuse to pull back on congressional fact-finding. The country needs to know if there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia whether or not a crime was committed. … delaying the process of getting to the truth will harm our country far more. And Republicans who throw up roadblocks will be hurt most of all.
We still need an independent commission of some kind to establish the full story of Russian meddling in the election, regardless of whether there was collusion, so its findings can be shared with the public.
* VULNERABLE REPUBLICANS ‘FED UP’ WITH TRUMP: The Washington Examiner reports that vulnerable House Republicans are now deeply worried that Trump’s antics will drag them down:
Already under siege for supporting Trump’s bill to partially repeal Obamacare, targeted Republicans are ready to wash their hands of the White House and move on if Trump doesn’t bring his presidency under control. “He didn’t win their districts and he’s currently sitting in the 30s,” said a Republican strategist involved in competitive House races, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “They’ve been trying to manage the situation but they’re fed up.”
Yeah, we’ll believe Republicans are ready to distance themselves from Trump when we see it actually happen.