THE MORNING PLUM:
“Believe the autocrat,” journalist Masha Gessen warned us only days after Donald Trump won the 2016 election. “He means what he says.”
In a new interview, President Trump once again telegraphed his desire to see the Justice Department investigate Hillary Clinton over the array of fake scandals that he and his allies have been talking about in recent weeks. But in this case, he went further than that. Asked by radio host Larry O’Connor about demands that the Justice Department probe those scandals, Trump openly stated his frustration with his inability to get the department to do his bidding in this regard:
“The saddest thing is, because I am the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by that. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her dossier, and the kind of money — I don’t know, is it possible that they paid $12.4 million for the dossier, which is total phony, fake, fraud and how is it used?
“It’s very discouraging to me. I’ll be honest, I’m very unhappy with it, that the Justice Department isn’t going — maybe they are but you know as President, and I think you understand this, as a President you’re not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something and at some point, maybe we are gonna all have it out.”
Everyone is making a big deal about that last line, as if it suggests that Trump is going to “have it out” with the Justice Department if it doesn’t do his bidding. But Trump could have meant that eventually, an investigation might take place, and then the (fake) facts will come “out.”
Instead, the important news here is that Trump signaled that he wants to be able to get the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate his political opponent. What is “discouraging” and “frustrating” to Trump is not simply the fact that the outcome he wants — an investigation into Clinton for whatever fake scandal might provide the pretext for that to happen — isn’t taking place.
Rather, what’s galling to Trump is the very existence of institutional barriers on him that are designed to protect the independence of law enforcement and insulate it from political interference. Getting law enforcement to target Hillary Clinton is something that he would like to be doing, if only he could do so. As Benjamin Wittes, the founder of the Lawfare blog, put it to me Friday morning: “It’s totally corrupt. Not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that he aspires to get people to violate their oaths of office, having taken his own oath insincerely.”
This reflects far more than mere disregard for the institutional functionings of our government. It’s deeply entangled with Trump’s own legal and political travails and his anger at having to submit to institutional processes himself. Trump demanded then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s loyalty, then fired him when it was not forthcoming, then admitted that this was due to the Russia probe. Trump openly raged at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to protect him from the investigation. He has since repeatedly demanded that the Justice Department target Clinton — and has now openly declared that he would prevail on the department to do so if only he could.
All this is why Trump’s new comments are doubly worrisome when viewed in the context of the Russia probe. The suite of new scandals that Trump and his media allies have been drumming up — the made-up Uranium One scandal and the absurdly exaggerated claim that payments ultimately leading to the “Steele Dossier” show that Clinton is the one who colluded with Russia — are about more than merely distracting from the ongoing revelations from the Mueller probe. Trump’s allies are brandishing these tales as part of a concerted effort to paint special counsel Robert S. Mueller as a corrupt actor himself, to goad Trump into closing down Mueller’s investigation, either by pardoning Trump’s close associates or moving to remove Mueller.
The problem for Trump’s allies is that Trump’s lawyers, and Trump himself, are resisting those efforts. But there is no chance that Trump is doing so out of respect for institutional boundaries, since he already has seriously considered moving against Mueller. Rather, he is likely motivated by self-preservation. But Trump’s allies surely know that if there is one way to prevail on Trump to act, it’s if his sense of rage and grievance at the unfairness of the situation boils over. Trump has now openly revealed that he is chafing at the constraints that prevent him from unleashing the Justice Department on Clinton. How is it possible that there is no investigation into Clinton, even as the illegitimate investigation into his own campaign’s conduct continues? If he can’t change the former, his allies will continue telling him, the only way left for him to make the situation fair is to do whatever must be done to shut down the latter.
It’s perfectly plausible that Trump will not, in the end, opt for this course of action. But when Trump openly advertises his total contempt for the rule of law, as he did in this new interview, we should believe him, and prepare for the attendant possibilities accordingly.
* WHY TAX CUTS MIGHT NOT JUICE ECONOMY: The New York Times reports that experts are “split” on whether big Trump/GOP cuts to corporate taxes will revitalize the economy, but sums up the view that they won’t rather convincingly:
Even some ardent supporters of the plan say expectations about heady growth and job gains are exaggerated. Interest rates are already at bargain-basement levels, plenty of potential investment capital is sloshing around, and the official jobless rate is at lows not seen in many years. Moreover, the cost of the tax package will inevitably deepen the deficit and lead to spending cuts that are likely to hit low- and middle-income workers.
Lawrence Summers, who was Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, dismisses the notion of an explosion of growth as “delusional” and adds: “Most of the benefits as best I can tell will go to wealthy people.”
* PRO-TRUMP GROUP LAUNCHES AD BLITZ FOR TAX PLAN: Bloomberg reports that the Trump-allied group America First will launch a multimillion-dollar ad blitz promoting the tax cuts, and the first spot starts Trump’s first campaign manager, Cory Lewandowski:
Lewandowski, who ran Trump’s 2016 campaign before being pushed out by Paul Manafort, tells “fellow patriots and friends” watching the 30-second spot that they need to rally behind the tax plan and confront special interests that will try to stop the legislation.
Lewandowski’s sky-high name recognition and blazing charisma will surely enable him to single-handedly shift the debate.
* AMERICANS KNOW TAX PLAN WILL FAVOR RICH: A new Post/ABC News poll finds:
A third of Americans support Trump’s tax plan, while 50 percent oppose it, a 17-point negative margin driven by overwhelming opposition from Democrats and skepticism among political independents and people with lower incomes. … Six in 10 say Trump’s proposals on cutting taxes favor the rich, a perception that has dogged Republican efforts in pursuing tax restructuring for months.
The poll finds, naturally, that a large majority of Republicans favor the plan. But 63 percent of independents say it will favor the rich, which could matter in the midterms.
* WHY ARE WE EVEN CUTTING TAXES NOW? Paul Krugman asks the big question about the Trump/GOP tax plan:
Why should tax cuts even be on the table? We have budget deficits, not surpluses, and lots of unmet needs for future spending. U.S. taxes are low, not high, compared with other wealthy countries. Predictions that tax cuts will lead to rapid economic growth have been wrong time and again. And by large margins, voters want taxes on corporations and the wealthy to go up, not down.
Wait, I know. It’s so Trump can say, “ME CUT CUT CUT!”
* WHAT ALL THOSE GOP RETIREMENTS TELL US: James Hohmann talks to House Republicans who have announced retirements (with some doing so despite being powerful committee chairs), and sums up the state of mind:
A lot of Republican lawmakers are just not having that much fun in this unproductive Congress. … You spend most of your time hitting up rich people and lobbyists for money but have little to show for it. Many colleagues in your own party seem unserious about governing. President Trump publicly blames you for his own ineffectiveness. You’re getting attacked from the Steve Bannon wing of the party. The very real prospect of losing the majority next November makes sticking around even less desirable.
Who knew total GOP control of the White House and Congress could be so complicated?
* TRUMP IS ‘THE ONLY ONE THAT MATTERS’: The president tells Fox News why it isn’t a big deal that State Department positions are going unfilled:
“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me, I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it that’s what the policy is going to be. … We don’t need all the people that they want. … Don’t forget, I’m a business person and I tell my people, well you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.”
The level of contempt for the basic functioning of government that this shows is remarkable, though at this point unsurprising.
* AND TRUMP RENEWS CALL FOR PROBE OF HILLARY CLINTON: Trump also renewed his call for prosecution of Hillary Clinton in this new tweetstorm:
We need to treat Trump’s willingness to traffic in this lunacy for what it is: evidence that he’s unfit to serve.