THE MORNING PLUM:
The Post reports that the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is stirring worries on Capitol Hill that his probe will push aside the ongoing congressional investigations into possible Trump campaign collusion with the Russians. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) puts it: “This pretty much shuts Congress down. Democrats, you got what you wanted. You got a special counsel. Now we’ll just move on.”
But this does not have to happen. It will happen only if Republicans want it to. Indeed, the more likely outcome is that Republicans — hoping to refocus on getting tax cuts and Obamacare repeal through — will use the existence of the special counsel as cover for evading pressure on them to exercise meaningful oversight.
Which once again leads back to the question: What more will it take for Republicans to meaningfully break with President Trump?
First, let’s allow that there are legitimate ways Mueller’s probe could hamstring congressional inquiries, by complicating their efforts to subpoena witnesses or seek other information. But this does not relieve Congress of the responsibility to do its part; while Mueller proceeds, Congress should pursue a full accounting of Russian interference in our election — in addition to whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians — if only to bolster public confidence in our democracy and safeguard it against any such future efforts. This might best be done with a select committee, but Republicans don’t appear too interested in a truly bipartisan, independent inquiry.
Could this change? Aside from shocking revelations about Trump and Russia, here are two things that could conceivably achieve a real shift:
Trump’s conduct further devolves into truly unhinged autocratic madness. It is plausible Trump might start attacking Mueller on Twitter or elsewhere once Mueller’s probe gains momentum or appears to be closing in. Mueller is expected to probe not just the Russia affair but also whether Trump obstructed justice via his various interactions with former FBI director James B. Comey.
It is even plausible Trump could try to get Mueller fired, by appealing to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who appointed him, to carry that out.
“The special counsel is removable for cause by the Deputy Attorney General,” Benjamin Wittes, founder of the Lawfare blog, told me today. “Rosenstein is a political appointee who reports to the president. He can perfectly lawfully be directed by the president to remove the special prosecutor. In that scenario, Rosenstein would have to make a decision as to whether to follow that order or resign.”
“That’s the exact situation that played out during the Saturday Night Massacre,” Wittes added, noting that when Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the Watergate special prosecutor — who was also closing in — the attorney general resigned.
Trump may decide to learn from history in this one case. But much of his reaction to the Russia probes so far suggest he is largely out of touch with basic institutional realities. So such a scenario is at least possible. If so, you’d think the pressure on Republicans to agree to an independent, bipartisan inquiry would increase substantially.
Republicans lose both upcoming special elections. If somehow Republicans lose the upcoming House special elections in Georgia and Montana — which seems unlikely but not impossible — that might really focus their minds. So, too, might losing this fall’s Virginia gubernatorial contest. As it is, vulnerable House Republicans are already expressing worry about how exposed they are as a result of the Trump scandals. More losses could suggest that the Democratic base is really activated; that the GOP-leaning college-educated whites who will be important to control of the House are souring on Trump bigly; that GOP base voters are demoralized; or some combination of those.
Comey’s upcoming testimony to Congress could make a difference. If he dramatically confirms reports that Trump demanded his loyalty and/or that Trump appealed to him to close down the probe into Michael Flynn’s Russia ties, that could further energize the Democratic base and sour swing voters, increasing pressure on Republicans to act as though they are interested in real oversight.
It bears repeating that the near-total GOP abdication of oversight is sorely testing our system on multiple fronts. Republicans are doing nothing to try to compel Trump to release his tax returns or otherwise be transparent about his business holdings, even as he advances a tax plan that could deliver him and his family an enormous windfall, and even as we do not even know how his other policies will impact those holdings. Nor are Republicans condemning Trump’s use of the nation’s diplomatic business to promote Mar-a-Lago and steer cash into his own pockets. On Russia, it’s perfectly plausible, as noted above, that Republicans will try use the special counsel as an excuse to dial back meaningful oversight.
Bottom line: There are no indications that Republicans are willing to compromise hopes of passing their agenda by treating Trump as the threat to our democracy that he truly represents. As James Fallows points out, it remains unclear whether Republicans will ever act “as if larger principles are at stake.” It appears they will do this only if the public backlash — fueled, perhaps, by Trump’s own further descent into unhinged authoritarianism — is severe enough to force them to.
* MORE CONTACTS BETWEEN TRUMP AND COMEY: The New York Times reports that Trump called Comey a few weeks after the inauguration and asked him when federal officials were going to put out word that he (Trump) was not under investigation:
Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department … After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line…
This is sourced to “two people briefed on the call.” It again underscores the importance of hearing from Comey himself, which will happen soon.
* SOURCE ON COMEY STORY SPEAKS OUT: Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes was a source for the conversation related above (Comey told him of it privately). Here’s the conclusion Wittes reached about this and the news that Trump also allegedly demanded a Comey loyalty pledge:
I am confident that these incidents … sketch a trajectory in which Trump kept Comey on board only as long as it took him to figure out that there was no way to make Comey part of the team. Once he realized that he couldn’t do that — and that the Russia matter was thus not going away — he pulled the trigger.
This is plausible, especially when you recall that one reported reason Trump fired Comey is that he was stewing over Comey’s refusal to make the Russia probe go away.
* COMEY TOOK VERY DETAILED NOTES ABOUT TRUMP DEMAND: One key allegation against Trump — that he asked Comey to squash the probe of Michael Flynn — is based on a memo Comey authored afterward. The Post talks to an associate of Comey and learns: “The notes of the January dinner conversation contained very nuanced quotes from the president and a high level of detail.”
The import of what Trump said about the Flynn probe turns heavily on the nuances, and this suggests Comey really tried to get those nuances right in his recollections. Have we mentioned that hearing from Comey himself is going to be important?
* SPECIAL COUNSEL DRAMATICALLY RAISES STAKES: The Post reports that Trump has been advised to lawyer up, and one expert lays out the stakes of the new special counsel’s probe very clearly:
A senior White House official said the president has been presented with options for retaining outside counsel in the case. “The whole Comey situation, that’s a different ballgame,” said Alan I. Baron, who has served as special counsel to the House in impeachment proceedings against four federal judges. “It could well be treated as criminal interference into an investigation. Obstruction of justice.”
This is key. The special counsel may well look at the circumstances of Comey’s firing, and at Trump’s alleged demand for Comey’s loyalty and for Comey to squash the Flynn probe.
* NEW TRUMP BUDGET COUNTS ON MASSIVE GROWTH: The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is set to roll out a fiscal 2018 budget with deep cuts to safety-net programs. Aides also say it will be “revenue neutral” (despite big tax cuts). Here’s how:
Among the more controversial elements of the budget will be the administration’s growth forecasts. The White House projects the nation’s economic growth rate will rise to 3% by 2021, compared with the 1.9% forecast under current policy by the Congressional Budget Office. It’s unusual to see the White House’s growth forecasts differ from the CBO and other blue-chip projections by such a large margin over such a long stretch of the 10-year budget window.
“Unusual” is one word for it. “Disingenuous” is another.
* A NEW INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC OF TRUMP’S FALSEHOODS: The Post fact-checking team has created an awesome new interactive graphic that allows you to sort Trump’s lies and distortions by topic and by medium.
If you browse through them, you’ll be reminded that we really have seen nothing even remotely approaching this level of dishonesty in recent political history. The grand total of falsehoods and misleading claims from Trump since taking office? 586.
* WE ARE LUCKY TRUMP IS SO INCOMPETENT: Paul Krugman takes stock of all the ways the Republicans have built a protective wall around Trump, and concludes:
Republicans won’t turn on Trump unless he has become such a political liability that he must be dumped … In a perverse way, we should count ourselves lucky that Trump is as terrible as he is … given the character of the Republican Party, we’d be well on the way to autocracy if the man in the White House had even slightly more self-control. Trump may have done himself in; but it can still happen here.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to see how Republicans might stick with Trump even if we learn the worst about him.