THE MORNING PLUM:
The Post and the New York Times are both reporting on what appears to be a serious escalation in the Trump team’s intentions to constrain the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and The Post is also reporting that President Trump has privately been exploring the possibility of granting pardons to his family members, and perhaps even himself.
Which means the possibility that we are sliding toward a constitutional crisis needs to be take seriously. Now what?
In an interview with me this morning, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon — a hard-charging Democrat on the Intelligence Committee — sounded the alarm in a big way, suggesting it’s time for Democrats to begin serious outreach to Republicans in Congress about sending a united message to Trump: Any effort to remove Mueller is unacceptable and will be met with a forceful response.
“What’s important, now, today, is finding a path to send the strongest possible message that firing Mueller without cause would be seen as an attack on democratic values and the rule of law and that there will be negative consequences,” Wyden told me.
“What we’ve seen so far, when the president says these kinds of things, is that Republicans try to find ways to leap out of the line of discussion,” Wyden said, adding that he was going to step up his own efforts to ensure that Republicans “understand how ominous this is.”
“I am going to be doing everything I can to get both sides of the aisle to send the strongest possible message,” Wyden continued. “It could include a letter; it could include a resolution; it could include things that other senators may think of.”
The Post’s report says that Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to undercut Mueller’s investigation, perhaps by arguing that he has conflicts of interest. The report also says that Trump has been “fuming” about Mueller’s probe and “has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.”
It is a measure of where we are now that this last revelation is not at all surprising. Candidates in both parties have voluntarily released their tax returns for decades, in an effort to show transparency as a matter of obligation to the public. As I argued yesterday, Trump has demonstrated that he has zero conception of any such obligation. Trump’s private rage that such transparency may be forced upon him confirms this in an unsettling way — he plainly views himself as the victim here and is wallowing in a deep pit of grievance and megalomania.
But that grievance and megalomania could shape his legal strategy. As one close adviser to the president put it: “If you’re looking at Russian collusion, the president’s tax returns would be outside that investigation.” Taken along with Trump’s comments to the New York Times, in which he said he would view any investigation of his family finances as a “violation,” it appears Trump is trying to set down lines that Mueller must not cross. Another Democratic senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, suggested today that this could be legally problematic, arguing that “trying to draw lines” or “put certain subjects off limits,” and then “intimidating or threatening a prosecutor” could verge “on potential obstruction of justice.”
There is, of course, precedent for presidents on both sides going on the attack against their prosecutorial tormentors. But Trump reportedly mulled trying to remove Mueller until getting talked out of it by his staff. Indeed, one Republican told The Post that all of this is part of an effort at “laying the groundwork to fire” the special counsel. Trump’s lead lawyer, John Dowd, claims talk of trying to remove Mueller is “nonsense.” But who thinks Trump can be counted upon to do what his lawyers say? Indeed, Trump’s own staffers have confided they aren’t sure whether he’ll try to do this at some point.
Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s unlikely that Republicans will act to send a forceful message to Trump that such a course of action is off limits. Yesterday, CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that he had talked to a number of GOP senators who are very critical of Trump’s comments to the Times, in which he suggested that he would not have selected Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he had known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia probe. But most of them would voice their concerns only under cover of anonymity.
Still, Wyden insists it is imperative that Democrats try to get Republicans to speak up. We must “send the strongest possible message to the president now, today, that there will be consequences,” Wyden says.
* MOVES AGAINST MUELLER COULD PUT PRESSURE ON REPUBLICANS: NBC’s First Read crew pointedly comments:
Every member of Congress should be on the record on this question: What will you do if Trump tries to fire Mueller or pardon his aides or family members?
Indeed. Let’s get on that.
* REPUBLICANS CAN’T DECIDE WHAT TO VOTE ON: The New York Times reports that GOP leaders have not decided which health bill — the most recent measure that restores some of the Affordable Care Act’s tax hikes; or full repeal — they are going to vote on next week:
The choice is unpalatable: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said on Thursday that the latest version of the bill to repeal and replace the health law would increase the number of people without health insurance by 15 million next year and by 22 million in 2026 … On the other hand, if senators opted simply to repeal the existing law, the budget office said on Wednesday, 32 million more people would be uninsured in 2026 compared with current law.
Or, alternatively, Republicans could vote on something other than rolling back the historic expansion of health coverage to tens of millions of people to finance a huge tax cut. Just a thought.
* MAJORITY DISAGREES WITH RUSSIA MEETING: A new CNN poll finds that 57 percent of Americans say Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort should not have met with the Russian lawyer to get dirt from the Russian government. Interestingly, even 36 percent of Republicans say they shouldn’t have done this.
Still, 55 percent of Republicans say they are not at all concerned about the meeting, and another 24 percent say they’re not too concerned, a total of 79 percent. So expect criticism of this stuff from GOP lawmakers to remain relatively muted.
* TRUMP SHAKES UP LEGAL TEAM: CBS News’s Major Garrett tweeted last night that Marc Kasowitz has been removed as Trump’s lead private lawyer. The Times adds that Trump liked Kasowitz’s “blunt” style but that he wasn’t a good fit for the delicacy of Trump’s evolving legal concerns, and that “veteran” Washington lawyer John Dowd will be taking the lead.
In other words, it’s gettin’ real.
* FOR THE GOP CONGRESS, FAILURE EVERYWHERE: The Associated Press points out that not only is it likely that the GOP health bill will fail, but also it could get a lot worse:
The GOP goal of overhauling the tax code requires passing a budget that is months overdue. That means success on the tax front is highly uncertain … Promised infrastructure legislation is nowhere … A government shutdown already looms as a possibility in the fall … Money for President Donald Trump’s border wall … looms as a major land mine. Then there’s the possibility of a market-shattering default if Congress fails to increase the nation’s borrowing authority.
Surely Trump’s renowned dealmaking prowess will save Republicans from themselves. Or perhaps his mighty Twitter feed will do the trick?
* TRUMP HARMING MILLIONS OUT OF SPITE: Paul Krugman lists the ways that the administration is sabotaging the ACA, including threatening to cut off “cost -sharing subsidies” to lower-income people, which could drive out insurers and leave millions without coverage:
The truly amazing thing about these sabotage efforts is that they don’t serve any obvious purpose. They won’t save money — in fact, cutting off those subsidies, in particular, would probably end up costing taxpayers more money than keeping them. They’re unlikely to revive Trumpcare’s political prospects … It’s basically about spite: Trump and his allies may have suffered a humiliating political defeat, but at least they can make millions of other people suffer.
As I noted the other day, congressional Republicans could put an end to this madness immediately, if they chose to.
* HOW TO STOP TRUMP’S SABOTAGE: Politico points out that there are other ways that the administration’s sabotage of the exchanges could be put in check:
One possible brake on the administration might be the pushback from some Republican governors and lawmakers who oppose letting insurance markets crumble on their watch — even as Trump insists voters will blame Democrats … “The best next step is for both parties to come together and do what we can all agree on: fix our unstable insurance markets,” wrote 11 governors this week in a bipartisan letter led by John Kasich of Ohio and John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
Should the GOP bill fail, this will be the next big battle.
* AND TRUMP IS SHATTERING POLLING RECORDS: Gallup finds that Trump’s second-quarter approval average of 38.8 percent is lower than any other president’s in the history of presidential polling. And that’s not all:
Trump has set new record lows for job approval ratings early in presidential terms, including his initial 45% reading, his first-quarter average of 41.3%, and his second-quarter average of 38.8%. Six months into his presidency, he has yet to register a single job approval rating above 50%, averaging 40% job approval to date.
For the purposes of the midterm elections, one key number is Gallup’s finding that his average second-quarter approval average among independents is an abysmal 36 percent. So much winning!