The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump and his allies are laying the groundwork for a Saturday Night Massacre

President Trump's troubles have only just begun with the charges facing former campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)


Let’s be clear on what’s happening in our politics right now. President Trump and his media allies are currently creating a vast, multi-tentacled, largely-fictional alternate media reality that casts large swaths of our government as irredeemably corrupt — with the explicitly declared purpose of laying the rationale for Trump to pardon his close associates or shut down the Russia probe, should he deem either necessary.

We often hear that Trump and his allies are trying to “distract” from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s intensifying investigation. That’s true, but this characterization inadequately casts this in terms ordinarily applied to conventional politics. Instead, Trump’s trafficking in this stuff should be seen as another sign of his fundamental unfitness to serve as president. Similar efforts by his media allies should be labeled as a deliberate effort to goad Trump into sliding into full-blown authoritarianism, and to provide the air cover for him if he does do so.

The Associated Press reports that people who have spoken to Trump say that he has recently revisited the idea of trying to remove Mueller, now that Mueller appears to be digging into Trump’s finances. Meanwhile, CNN reports that former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon is privately urging Trump to try to get Republicans to defund Mueller’s probe.

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Monday night, Sean Hannity delivered perhaps the most perfect expression yet of efforts to create the rationale for such moves. Hannity dismissed the news of major allegations against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the cooperation of adviser George Papadopoulos as big nothingburgers. He also hit all the high points of the new Trump/media campaign, points that Trump himself and the White House have made repeatedly in public statements. Those include reviving the made-up scandal that Hillary Clinton approved a deal for a Russian nuclear agency to gain access to U.S. uranium extraction rights in exchange for kickbacks, and the absurdly exaggerated claim that the Clinton campaign, having paid through various intermediaries for research that ultimately led to the “Steele Dossier,” actually colluded with Russia to interfere in the election. These have been extensively fact checked and debunked.

In an important new piece, Post fact checker Glenn Kessler blows another big hole in one of this campaign’s key story lines. Kessler notes that multiple Trump media allies are repeating the claim that Clinton gave away “20 percent” of our uranium capacity to Russia. And he shows that, for various technical reasons, this figure is itself absurdly inflated, and the description of this as a Clinton giveaway has no relation to reality.

But the real point of Hannity’s presentation came when he flatly accused Mueller of trying to “change the narrative to distract from the real Russia collusion and massive cover-ups.” Hannity added that Mueller “is clearly complicit in the Uranium One scandal.” This is a reference to the fact that Mueller headed the FBI when the uranium deal happened. Reports that the FBI was investigating a Russian energy official’s efforts to corrupt a U.S. company at the time have led to GOP questions about why the Obama administration green-lighted the deal anyway. But this is also absurd, as Kessler explains, since the deal went through an extensive multi-agency process and no evidence has been presented that this process improperly skirted any FBI probe.

Regardless, Hannity concluded: “We are at a real crisis point in America tonight.” Trump has tweeted in support of many of these allegations. And as Jonathan Chait details, other Trump media allies have explicitly cited these and other similar story-lines (Mueller’s investigators are Dem donors!) in support of the notion that Mueller should resign or that Trump should close down the Russia probe.

We don’t know if Trump will go full authoritarian or not. But as Brian Beutler says, the mere fact that congressional Republicans are not flashing a bright warning sign itself suggests that we cannot count on any procedural response meeting it, if it does come to that.  The continued media treatment of efforts to lay the groundwork for such an eventuality as mere efforts to “distract” from Mueller suggests another guardrail is inadequate as well.

The Post's Bob Woodward looks back on the Saturday Night Massacre and the circumstances surrounding President Richard Nixon's firing of the special prosecutor. (Video: Peter Stevenson, Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

Indeed, it’s important to reckon with the scope of what Trump and his allies are alleging. The idea is that Mueller — who was originally appointed to head the FBI by George W. Bush, and who became special counsel because of Trump’s own firing of his FBI director over the Russia probe — originally participated in a hallucinatory conspiracy to cover up Clinton collusion with Russia. Now Mueller is using the current investigation to distract from it. In this alternate universe, all of that is the crisis (Hannity’s word) we face, and the only way to address it is for Trump to close all of it down. Dem strategist Simon Rosenberg is right to point out that Trump’s trafficking in all of this — his endorsement of the idea of preposterous levels of corruption and conspiracy theories unfurling at many levels throughout the government — itself raises questions about Trump’s fitness to serve. We need to confront the insanity and depravity of all this forthrightly, and convey it accurately.

* ‘SEETHING’ TRUMP HAD TO BE TALKED DOWN ON MUELLER: CNN reports that after the indictments came down, aides “urgently” advised Trump not to “lash out” at Robert S. Mueller III. And:

Watching the developments unfold on the large television screens installed in his private residence, Trump was “seething,” according to a Republican close to the White House. … As the morning carried on … Trump grew increasingly frustrated as he viewed cable news coverage of his onetime campaign chairman arriving at the FBI field office in downtown Washington, believing his former aides’ roles were being inflated.

Also, CNN reports that George Papadopoulos’s cooperation has surprised the White House and is “stirring even more unease among Trump’s allies.” Which gives the lie to all the bravado we’re seeing.

* TRUMP FRETS THAT MUELLER IS LOOKING AT HIS BUSINESS DEALINGS: The Associated Press adds more on Trump’s state of mind:

Trump has become increasingly concerned that the Mueller probe could be moving beyond Russia to an investigation into his personal dealings, two people familiar with the president’s thinking said. … The president publicly mused in a July interview that he might look to fire the special counsel if Mueller began looking into his business dealings, a possibility that has weighed on him in recent weeks, according to two people who have spoken to him but were not authorized to discuss private conversations.

You’d think Republicans might want to do something about this before it’s too late. But you would be wrong:

* REPUBLICANS NOT FEELING URGENCY ABOUT MUELLER: The Post reports that GOP leaders “avoided the substance of the charges Mueller” filed. Meanwhile:

Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers who have raised alarms about the president’s judgment in recent weeks continued to hold out the possibility of passing legislation to head off potential meddling into the investigation by Trump. But few, if any, spoke with great urgency about taking those steps, convinced that Trump was not preparing to fire Mueller imminently.

Why act now to warn Trump against precipitating a full-blown constitutional crisis, when we can deal with it if and when it happens?

* THE REAL JOHN KELLY SHOWS HIMSELF: In an interview with Laura Ingraham, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly refused to apologize for lying about the African American congresswoman who spoke up on behalf of the widow of a slain soldier. He also remarked that “the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

What’s particularly galling about this is that it comes after Kelly lectured us about the disappearance of basic decency and traditional values. Yet here he contemptuously sneers lies about Rep. Frederica Wilson, and when caught out, refuses to take responsibility for it. His reading of history is highly questionable, too.

* MUELLER IS RUNNING A VERY AGGRESSIVE INVESTIGATION: The New York Times reports this interesting detail, leading up to the indictments of Paul Manafort and business associate Rick Gates:

The Justice Department often invites lawyers to meet and discuss potential indictments. It is both an opportunity for lawyers to argue for leniency, and for prosecutors to spot potential weaknesses in their case. But on Friday night, people close to Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates and lawyers involved in the investigation said they had received no indication that an indictment against them was imminent.

Some of this might be intended as an effort to send a message to others who fear getting swept up in the probe that they should cooperate with it.

* MANAFORT’S MONEY LAUNDERING, MAPPED OUT: The Times also has a pretty cool visual depiction of the money laundering laid out in the indictment, as well as what it was spent on. Summary:

The two men, who pleaded not guilty, are charged with setting up offshore bank accounts and making wire transfers from them to directly pay for goods, services and real estate in the United States. They are said to have done this without disclosing their foreign bank accounts or paying taxes on the income. The indictment lists more than 30 domestic and foreign entities that were involved in the plan.

The sheer brazenness of this scheme continues to surprise, as does its acquisitiveness: More than $12 million was spent on personal goods and more than $6 million went to real estate.

* IS A LOUSY TAX CUT REALLY WORTH ALL THIS? Paul Krugman notes that those who will benefit from Trump/GOP tax cuts already are so rich that they won’t really notice their impact, and asks whether it’s really worth the destruction that Trump has unleashed:

The G.O.P. policy agenda of rewarding the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working class would be vile even if tax cuts would make the rich ecstatic. The party’s willingness to turn a blind eye to corruption with a hint of treason would be horrifying whatever the motivation. Still, there seems to me to be an extra dimension of awfulness to the whole situation once you realize that all this betrayal serves no real purpose, not even a bad one.

But wait, what about the explosion of economic growth and sudden corporate willingness to hand over newly untaxed profits to workers that these tax cuts will surely unleash?