THE MORNING PLUM:
In a closed-door interview with congressional investigators yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. refused to divulge the contents of a phone conversation with his father — that would be the president — that took place just after news broke of Trump Jr.’s now-notorious June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected lawyer. According to reports, investigators wanted to know whether Senior and Junior discussed what happened at that meeting and how they should respond to the news of it, but Trump Jr. cited attorney-client privilege and clammed up.
There is a perfectly reasonable chance that congressional Republicans will help Trump Jr. get away with this.
In an interview with me this morning, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) — the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which interviewed Trump Jr. yesterday — told me that if Trump Jr. continues to refuse to answer questions about this phone call, he will push for the committee to subpoena Trump Jr. and try to compel him to testify about it.
“If they persist in this claim of privilege, then we’d have to subpoena him to come back,” Schiff told me.
In his session with the Intelligence Committee, Trump Jr. was pressed to detail what transpired on a call he had with the president about the Trump Tower meeting in July 2017, just days after the news of it broke. Trump Jr.’s email chain, you will recall, confirmed that he took this meeting — which was also attended by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort — in the full expectation that it would yield dirt on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government, which was trying to tip the election to his father. Trump Jr. declined to detail the conversation, on the grounds that lawyers for both Trump Jr. and his father were also on the call, meaning it is protected by attorney-client privilege, a claim Schiff rejects.
Schiff told me — as he also told reporters late yesterday — that Trump Jr.’s lawyer asked for some time to study whether they will ultimately comply with investigators’ request for more detail about the call. Schiff said in our interview that he hopes Trump Jr. and his lawyer ultimately decide that privilege does not apply and that they will be forthcoming. But Schiff added: “If he doesn’t, we should absolutely subpoena him to come back.”
The question, though, is whether the House Republicans who control the committee will agree with this demand. Those Republicans said they were satisfied with Trump Jr.’s appearance. And Schiff told me he’s concerned that if Trump Jr. continues to refuse to discuss this call, Republicans will not press the issue, to avoid determining what happened on it.
“If the majority isn’t willing to find out, then they’re not living up to their commitment to the American people to follow the facts wherever they lead,” Schiff said. “Effectively they’re saying, ‘We don’t want to know where the facts lead, so we’re not going to insist on answers.’ ”
The larger context here is that the president himself helped dictate the initial statement that misled the American people about the true rationale for this meeting. Investigators want more info about the call between Trump Jr. and his father because it might help establish both what happened at that meeting and why Senior and Junior subsequently covered it up.
That could help further establish a pattern in which President Trump and/or his advisers have regularly lied about both their eagerness to collude with Russia (which was allegedly also trying to sow confusion and discord to undermine our democracy) and about their contacts with Russians during the campaign and the transition. Trump also allegedly demanded that his former FBI director drop the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn (who is now cooperating with the special counsel) and has publicly admitted to firing Comey over the Russia probe, both of which appear designed to impede investigations getting to the bottom of what happened.
“We’d like to know what the president’s son had to say about the meeting [with the Russian lawyer] in a private conversation with his father,” Schiff told me. “The best evidence we’re going to get of what actually happened before, during, and after the meeting is what the president and his son said privately.” Schiff added that the details of the call could help establish how far the president went in “supporting false statements from his son,” which could be “part of an effort by the president to conceal his conduct and the conduct of his family.” This, Schiff said, should be of “great concern” to the committee.
Unfortunately, this may not end up being a matter of great concern to the Republicans who control it. We don’t know if all of this will amount to obstruction of justice or not. But even if it falls short of criminality, all of it could still add up to highly questionable or potentially impeachable conduct. We all should want to know the full story — Republicans included.
* REPUBLICANS ARE ‘MORE TOLERANT’ OF HARASSMENT: The New York Times, in its overview of the Democratic pressure on Sen. Al Franken to resign over sexual harassment charges against him, observes:
By and large, Republicans have seemed more tolerant of infractions in their own ranks. House leaders have said nothing since it was revealed Friday that Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas used $84,000 from a secret taxpayer fund to settle a lurid sexual harassment case filed against him. … Representative Joe Barton of Texas … announced last month that he would not seek re-election next year after graphic images that he sent to a constituent appeared on the internet. But he received little pressure to step down.
As the Times notes, by contrast, Republicans are “deeply divided” over Roy Moore. It’s worth noting here that the Republican president himself (also a target of multiple charges) has enthusiastically endorsed him.
* WHY DEMOCRATS ARE TURNING ON FRANKEN: NBC News reports that Democratic aides say pushing out Franken is crucial to putting Democrats on the right side of this issue, which was getting muddled by their equivocating. As one Democratic strategist puts it:
“This is an important test for our party — to show women that we stand with them and believe them. And it’s an important distinction for us to draw going into 2018: That while the Republican Party will prop up a pedophile like Moore, we’ll show zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.”
One sincerely wonders how much Republicans worry about the politics of this contrast.
* WHAT COMES NEXT AFTER FRANKEN IN MINNESOTA: With Franken expected to resign today, Politico reports that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is likely to appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the seat. However:
But that appointment would be just the start of an upheaval in Minnesota. Part of the reason Smith could be heading to the Senate, the sources said, is that she has indicated no interest in running for Congress in the past and would not run for the remainder of Franken’s term, which expires in 2020, in a 2018 special election. That would clear the way for a wide open Democratic primary next year if Franken steps down.
This would allow for the symbolism of appointing a woman, and for a contested primary, in which the left wing of the party is likely to line up behind Rep. Keith Ellison.
* TRUMP LACKED ‘FULL UNDERSTANDING’ ON ISRAEL: The Post reports that Trump, in making yesterday’s announcement about Jerusalem, overrode the advice of his secretaries of state and defense. Also:
Several advisers said he did not seem to have a full understanding of the issue and instead appeared to be focused on “seeming pro-Israel,” in the words of one, and “making a deal,” in the words of another.
And at one meeting, The Post reports, Trump appeared “irritated” by substantive objections, because policy complexities are really nothing more than an inconvenience to be brushed aside.
* REPUBLICANS KNOW TRUMP TAX PLAN WILL HELP ECONOMY: A new CBS News poll finds that over half of Americans oppose the Trump/GOP tax plan, and only one third say it will boost the economy. But:
Seven in 10 Republicans think the new tax plan will help the economy. … Republican optimism about the plan’s effect on the economy may be because Republicans agree with the idea that large corporations will use the money they save from tax cuts to create jobs. Six in 10 Republicans think this will happen. Just over a quarter of Americans overall agree.
Never mind that corporations are already sitting on massive profits, even as wages remain stagnant; Trump and GOP leaders said cutting their taxes will explode wages, so it must be true.
* DEMOCRATS HOPE ISSUES LIFT THEM IN HOUSE RACES: A new survey of 25 GOP-held House battleground districts, conducted by Public Policy Polling for America’s Voice and MoveOn, finds that 63 percent of voters oppose a government shutdown; 54 percent would blame Trump and Republicans for one; and 68 percent support allowing young immigrants brought here illegally to remain.
The poll also finds Democrats lead in the generic ballot matchup, 50 percent to 41 percent, which is close to what the averages show. GOP worry about 2018 may give Democrats leverage in the shutdown fight, which includes a battle over whether to protect the “dreamers.”
* HOW MOORE AND TRUMP PLAY CONSERVATIVES: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a good column explaining how Roy Moore plays conservative voters, just as Trump does, and why that underscores the stakes of the Alabama race:
Both Moore and President Trump play on the feelings of marginalization experienced by many cultural conservatives. It would be salutary for such voters to declare that there are limits to how much they will allow themselves to be used by politicians whose words and deeds are so often at odds. If Moore is not the limiting case, there are no limits. … the long-term harm to the GOP from a Moore victory will be far greater than from one lost Senate seat.
Alas, the outcome may end up proving not only that there are no limits, but also that Trump has so degraded our politics that Republicans won’t pay a serious price even for seating him.