THE MORNING PLUM:
Are Republicans prepared for the possibility that President Trump’s abuses of power could continue their slide to depths of madness or autocracy that make the current moment look relatively tame by comparison? This isn’t meant as a rhetorical question. It is genuinely unclear — from the public statements of Republicans and the reporting on their private deliberations — whether they envision a point at which Trump’s conduct could grow unhinged enough, or threaten serious enough damage to our democracy, to warrant meaningful acknowledgment, never mind action.
Politico’s Playbook this morning tries to sum up the thinking among Republicans. The gist: Republicans are increasingly worried they will lose the House amid a “toxic political environment that appears to be worsening.” They cite the possibility that they won’t secure any serious legislative wins, as well as “serious concerns” about “more revelations” coming on Trump. In the background, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation “remains the wild card.”
For sure, but how much worse could this get? The chatter on the Sunday shows hinted at where we may be headed. Here are a few things to watch for:
The tapes Trump hinted at turn out not to exist. On ABC’s “This Week,” Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal team, said Trump will make a decision very soon on whether to release the tapes he may have made of his conversations with then-FBI Director James B. Comey. After the news broke that Trump may have demanded a “loyalty” pledge from Comey, the president tweeted that Comey had better hope he doesn’t have tapes of their conversations. Trump has since hinted he still might release them, and congressional investigators have demanded them.
This state of play is utter lunacy in its current form — the White House has still not said whether these tapes exist, even as Trump hints they might still be coming, and we are so numb to Trump’s daily crazy at this point that we now oddly treat this as somewhat unremarkable. Maybe they do exist. But what happens if the White House, in response to those congressional demands, ultimately confirms that they don’t? Experts think the White House will have to come clean in some way. At that point, it would be confirmed that Trump invented the existence of these tapes to chill Comey from offering a full public accounting of the events leading up to his firing — which itself was a massive abuse of power, given that Trump allowed it was because of the FBI’s Russia probe — in the full knowledge that Comey was going to serve as a witness before long. What will Republicans say about that?
Trump tries to get the special prosecutor fired. Also on ABC’s “This Week,” Sekulow refused to rule out the possibility that Trump might end up trying to order Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to fire Mueller. It is possible that Trump is cognizant enough of the history here (Richard Nixon tried pretty much the same thing) to avoid the drastic step of trying to get Mueller axed mainly because he’s closing in on wrongdoing.
But Trump is not inclined to let institutional constraints limit his options, and he and his team have already shown themselves to be less than shrewd at gaming out the consequences of trampling on them. The circumstances of Trump’s firing of Comey are a case in point. The White House thought it could get away with floating the idea that Rosenstein had provided the rationale (his memo fingered Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe). But that story fell apart, raising the possibility that Rosenstein had provided Trump cover for the real rationale, which Trump subsequently admitted on national television was Comey’s handling of the Russia probe. This basically required Rosenstein to appoint the special counsel.
So can we really count on Trump refraining from trying to get Mueller removed? Nope. Somewhat unlike in Nixon’s time, Republicans may well still stand by Trump even if this happens. If so, they’d be in a considerably darker place than they are even now. And so would we all.
MEANWHILE, WHAT HAPPENS IF TRUMP TESTIFIES UNDER OATH? Trump has now said that he’s “100 percent” ready to testify under oath to special counsel Mueller about his interactions with Comey. But Bloomberg Politics’ Paul Barrett points out that this could create a big problem later:
Trump, through his comments, has limited his lawyer’s maneuvering room. The “100 percent” promise means that if Mueller asks the president to testify under oath — and Mueller eventually will ask — the president has unilaterally disarmed himself from arguing that there’s some reason he shouldn’t have to be questioned under penalty of perjury.
If so, what does Trump say under oath? His lead lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, is flatly contesting Comey’s contention that Trump tried to influence his ongoing probe, and Trump has claimed Comey is lying. But as Brian Beutler points out, even many Republicans are not doing that, which amounts to a “tacit acknowledgment that Trump is lying” about his conversations with Comey, even as they are vaguely defending Trump’s conduct in them.
If Trump should end up testifying, the president would now be under dramatically increased pressure to tell the truth. And Republicans would be under dramatically increased pressure to clarify whom they really believe.
* GOP SENATOR SAYS TRUMP PRESSURE WAS ‘WRONG’: On CNN’s State of the Nation, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had this to say about Comey’s testimony about Trump’s pressure on him to end the Michael Flynn probe:
“Certainly, Mr. Comey understood it as a directive. The exact language makes it more ambiguous, because the president says, ‘I hope’ you can see your way to letting the Flynn matter go. That’s still wrong for him to do that. Whether it’s illegal is a whole other issue, and that’s up to the independent counsel. But it was wrong of the president to even bring up the subject.”
It’s odd how few Republicans will admit to this obvious state of affairs. By the way, Comey was also asked by another senator if he took Trump’s “hope” as an “order,” and he said: “Yes.”
* DUMB GOP SPIN ABOUT TRUMP AND COMEY CONTINUES: Here’s Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, on “Fox News Sunday,” explaining why Trump’s directive to Comey regarding Flynn is no biggie:
“Say his version is true, and he said, the president said: ‘I hope you let this go.’ Listen, I’m a mom of kids. There’s a difference between saying ‘I hope you do your homework’ and ‘Go do your homework.’ Donald Trump, President Donald Trump, is someone who speaks definitively. He’s somebody who, when he talks to you, you know what he means.”
Uh, okay, but according to Comey, Trump previously demanded his loyalty multiple times, which is to say, he had already demanded that Comey shed his institutional independence.
* TRUMP HIT WITH NEW LAWSUIT: The Post reports that the attorneys general of Washington, D.C., and Maryland, Karl Racine and Brian Frosh, will file a lawsuit charging that Trump’s acceptance of payments from foreign governments is unconstitutional:
If a federal judge allows the case to proceed, Racine and Frosh say, one of the first steps will be to demand through the discovery process copies of Trump’s personal tax returns to gauge the extent of his foreign business dealings. That fight would most likely end up before the Supreme Court, the two said, with Trump’s attorneys having to defend why the returns should remain private.
If there is to be any hope of chipping away at Trump’s serial breaking of our norms, it’s through the sum total of many, many efforts such as this one.
* GOP HEALTH BILL COULD CRAMP WORKERS’ FLEXIBILITY: The New York Times talks to people who are worried that if the GOP repeal bill goes through, it could limit the flexibility of workers to move from job to job or start their own businesses:
The Affordable Care Act has enabled many of those workers to get transitional coverage that provides a bridge to the next phase of their lives — a stopgap to get health insurance if they leave a job, are laid off, start a business or retire early. If the Republican replacement plan approved by the House becomes law, changing jobs or careers could become much more difficult.
This is the reality lurking behind GOP rhetoric about how getting rid of the ACA will bring more flexibility, choice and freedom.
* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT MISSTEPS IN GEORGIA: The Washington Examiner reports that GOP insiders are privately beginning to blame Karen Handel, the GOP candidate in the special House election in the Atlanta suburbs, for the possibility of a loss:
Republicans’ biggest fears, and why the race is so close, they say, are the money Ossoff is raising — a staggering $23 million from Jan. 1 through the end of May — and missteps by Handel, 55, the former Georgia secretary of state. Handel has kept a light campaign schedule, and raised nowhere near as much money as Ossoff. That has drawn criticism from GOP insiders, albeit privately. It has allowed Ossoff to dominate media coverage — and the airwaves.
It seems obvious that Republicans are still narrowly favored to win here — it is a very red district — but the fact that finger-pointing has already begun isn’t a great sign for them.
* AND TRUMP BERATES PRIEBUS FOR DYSFUNCTION: Politico reports that Trump has given White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus a hard deadline for cleaning up all the chaos:
Days after his return from his first foreign trip late last month, Trump berated Priebus in the Oval Office in front of his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie for the dysfunction in the White House, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation. … “I’m giving you until July 4,” Trump said, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.
What could an internal shake-up do about the fact that Trump has thrown in with deeply unpopular policy (the GOP health bill); has shown pretty much zero interest in the details of governing; and has fired his FBI director over the Russia probe, which led directly to the special counsel and the rest of the current mess?