THE MORNING PLUM:
Is President Trump even capable of grasping the basic outlines of the story line that led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his intensifying investigation, which is now targeting Trump himself? This is not intended as idle speculation about our president’s frazzled mental condition. The question is a consequential one: If the answer is “no,” it’s more likely that things will get a good deal more turbulent from here on out.
Axios has a remarkable report this morning that purports to get inside Trump’s thinking as he eyes Mueller’s probe closing in:
Behind the scenes in the West Wing, President Trump continues to rant and brood about former FBI Director Jim Comey and the Russia investigation that got him fired.
Trump tells aides and visitors that the probe now being run by special counsel Bob Mueller is a witch hunt, and that Comey was a leaker. …
The Mueller investigation is hitting ever closer to home for Trump … The president’s friends are most worried about Mueller digging into past business deals, which is why his team keeps raising concerns in public and private about the “scope” of the investigation.
Though this is based on murky sourcing, there are two reasons to take it seriously. The first is that it mirrors a New York Times report in June that said Trump privately raged over Mueller and seriously considered trying to remove him but was talked out of it. That report said this: “People close to Mr. Trump say he is so volatile they cannot be sure that he will not change his mind about Mr. Mueller if he finds out anything to lead him to believe the investigation has been compromised.” Thus, Trump could easily be concluding right now that the investigation is compromised and is privately raging about it.
The second reason to take the Axios report seriously is that Trump’s thinking was reflected publicly by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at yesterday’s briefing. Asked about former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s contention that firing Comey was a catastrophic mistake, Sanders said firing Comey was “100 percent right,” and justified it this way:
“I think there is no secret Comey, by his own self-admission, leaked privileged government information. … His actions were improper and likely could have been illegal. Comey leaked memos to the New York Times, your own outlet. He politicized an investigation by signaling he would exonerate Hillary Clinton before he ever interviewed her or other key witnesses.”
But this response inadvertently reveals the degree to which the White House’s rationale for the firing of Comey has shifted and changed over time. Sanders claims that Comey’s improper behavior was to be too soft on Clinton. Sarah Posner has already explained why this whole narrative is deeply ridiculous. But the other important point is that it cuts against the reasons that Trump and the White House have already given for the firing.
When Trump fired Comey, he claimed he had done so on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. He had authored a memo asserting Comey’s transgression was that he had inappropriately handled the Clinton email investigation by criticizing her behavior at a presser despite recommending no charges against her. That is a diametrically different rationale than the latest one offered by Sanders.
Now, obviously, Trump could conceivably have had more than one reason for firing Comey. But let’s not forget that after Trump’s claim that he had fired Comey on Rosenstein’s recommendation fell apart under scrutiny, Trump admitted on national television that he had fired Comey over the Russia probe. Since then, we have learned that Mueller is in possession of an earlier draft of a letter explaining the firing — which was not released after alarmed staffers intervened — and it, too, blamed Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, raging that Comey would not publicly exonerate him.
Trump himself precipitated the events leading to Mueller’s appointment. After demanding Comey’s loyalty and demanding that Comey drop the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — and getting neither — Trump gave Comey the ax. (Trump also revealed publicly that he was furious with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not protecting him from the investigation, apparently unaware of how inappropriate this was.) Trump’s claim that he had fired Comey on Rosenstein’s recommendation — followed by Trump’s public admission that he had in fact done so because of the Russia probe — left little doubt that he had tried to implicate Rosenstein in creating a cover story for the firing. These flagrant abuses of process and power are what led directly to Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller.
Does Trump grasp this chain of events and his own role in setting them in motion? It’s really not clear that he does. And this could have severe consequences. Former senior Bush legal adviser Jack Goldsmith has a must-read essay in the Atlantic that catalogs Trump’s serial norm-shredding and lawlessness, which concludes that our system is showing signs that it will survive Trump. But that rests on the “assumption … that the country is fundamentally stable,” which is not guaranteed:
What if Mueller finds evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians — and Trump fires not just Mueller but also scores of others in the Justice Department, and pardons himself and everyone else involved? These are not crazy possibilities. The Constitution has held thus far and might continue to do so under more-extreme circumstances. But it also might not.
If Trump is not able to grasp that he is to blame for Mueller’s probe, it becomes more likely that Trump could take steps such as these in the grip of delirium over imagined persecution. What happens then is anybody’s guess.
* TRUMP MAY SLASH NUMBER OF REFUGEES: The New York Times reports that Trump may cut the number of refugees admitted annually by half, from 110,000 to under 50,000. The move is opposed by the State and Defense departments. but:
[Stephen] Miller, the principal architect of Mr. Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, has been the most vocal proponent at the White House for reducing the number of admissions far below the 50,000 stipulated in the travel ban, at one point advocating a level as low as 15,000, the officials said.
What a surprise! Keeping out these desperate refugees should do wonders to allay the economic anxiety of struggling Trump voters in the Rust Belt.
* DEMS PLAN TO ROLL OUT NEW JOBS AGENDA: Paul Kane reports that at today’s House Democratic caucus meeting, Democrats will announce new task forces designed to create a proactive jobs agenda heading into the 2018 midterms:
Democrats say they need a positive agenda to reshape the way middle-class voters view their party after last year’s disappointing showing, during which key Midwest battleground voters embraced Trump’s nationalist economic message. … Their mission is to report back by December with actual proposals that can be drafted into legislation, and then formally unveil them around the annual issues retreat outside Washington in late January.
Few recall it today, but Pelosi and Democrats took back the House in 2006 in part with a blueprint focused on specific issues.
* REPUBLICANS MAY HAVE TO SCALE BACK TAX ‘REFORM’: The Post has a good, deep dive into negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans over tax reform, which have run into trouble. You guessed why:
Negotiators agree with the goal of slashing the corporate income tax rate and also cutting individual income taxes. But they have yet to agree about which tax breaks should be cut to pay for it all. … All of it has forced negotiators to consider scaling back their vision. … White House officials are still hopeful that they can lower the centerpiece of their effort, the corporate rate, from 35 percent to 15 percent. Many congressional Republicans, however, think that goal is ambitious.
As I’ve argued before, they will end up pushing through whatever tax cut can pass and call that “reform.” Who knew even cutting taxes could be so complicated?
* EVEN TRUMP VOTERS WANT TO PROTECT THE ‘DREAMERS’: A new Politico-Morning Consult poll finds:
54 percent of voters want Congress to establish a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, and another 19 percent want Congress to allow them to stay without establishing citizenship. … Only 12 percent of voters want Congress to pass legislation that removes or deports Dreamers.
That’s 73 percent who want Congress to protect the dreamers. And the poll finds that 68 percent of Trump voters want the same. Maybe “the base” doesn’t really want the dreamers deported?
* BERNIE’S BIG ROLLOUT BEGINS: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a new piece describing his Medicare For All bill, which will be introduced tomorrow, as the ultimate solution to a deeply wasteful, costly, and unjust health system:
Guaranteeing comprehensive health benefits to Americans over 65 has proved to be enormously successful, cost-effective and popular. Now is the time to expand and improve Medicare to cover all Americans. … Under this legislation, every family in America would receive comprehensive coverage, and middle-class families would save thousands of dollars a year by eliminating their private insurance costs as we move to a publicly funded program. The transition to the Medicare for All program would take place over four years.
Obviously there are all sorts of unknowns to debate, such as how to paid for it. One thing this might do is (hopefully) force a serious debate over whether health care should be a right.
* A DOZEN STATES WON’T COUGH UP VOTER DATA: The Los Angeles Times offers a guide to how the states are responding to the request for their voter data from Trump’s vote suppression commission. More than a dozen are not complying.
Voting rights advocates see the requests as a prelude to possible purges of voting rolls, which could (surprise) disproportionately remove Dem-aligned voters. A commission that was created explicitly to validate Trump’s lies about voter fraud, and is overseen by one of the most notorious vote suppressors in the country, would never do anything like that, right?