THE MORNING PLUM:
We already know that President Trump’s narcissism and megalomania threaten our democracy in multiple ways. His intolerance of critical media scrutiny fuels his systematic campaign to delegitimize the free press. His inability to acknowledge that his own conduct led directly to the special counsel’s Russia probe fuels a deep grievance and rage over it, making it more likely that he can be goaded into trying to close the investigation down.
Now a blockbuster new Post report shows how these traits are coming together to expose our democracy to danger on another front. Just before Trump was sworn in as president, the report says, his advisers urged him to publicly acknowledge U.S. intelligence findings that Russia tried to sabotage our democracy. But Trump “became agitated,” the report notes. “He railed that the intelligence couldn’t be trusted and scoffed at the suggestion that his candidacy had been propelled by forces other than his own strategy, message and charisma.” The result is this:
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.
The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.
Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account. …
Trump has never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference or what to do about it, administration officials said. Although the issue has been discussed at lower levels at the National Security Council, one former high-ranking Trump administration official said there is an unspoken understanding within the NSC that to raise the matter is to acknowledge its validity, which the president would see as an affront. …
The feeble American response has registered with the Kremlin. U.S. officials said that a stream of intelligence from sources inside the Russian government indicates that Putin and his lieutenants regard the 2016 “active measures” campaign — as the Russians describe such covert propaganda operations — as a resounding, if incomplete, success.
Those are remarkable revelations. As I’ve argued, we have done a poor job of accurately capturing the true nature of Trump’s position on Russian interference. It isn’t simply that Trump denies his campaign colluded with that interference. Rather, it’s that this interference never happened at all, irrespective of whether any collusion with it took place. (We now know that collusion did happen; at this point the question is how serious the misconduct was.)
Though Trump has at times acknowledged that such sabotage did take place, he has mostly refused to do so. This has long appeared to reflect an inability to view discussion of Russian interference as about anything other than himself. To acknowledge Russian meddling can only be an acknowledgement that his victory may have reflected unsavory external factors along with his blinding greatness, and thus may have been in some sense tainted, and since in Trump’s mind that cannot be true, it also cannot be true that Russia meddled at all.
This new Post report not only confirms from inside that this is the driving dynamic; it also spells out the consequences of it. Let’s recall two important facts about this Russian meddling: First, intelligence agencies have concluded it wasn’t just about helping Trump win; the goal was also to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” Second, intelligence officials have concluded that Russia, in continued service of those goals, is going to try to do this again.
The Post reporting leaves little doubt that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian sabotage undermines the government’s ability to mount a response commensurate with the destructiveness of those intentions. The Post quotes one official insisting that Trump’s views are “not a constraint” on the government’s ability to fend off Russia’s “destabilizing activity.” But this assertion undercuts itself: It acknowledges both that this is an urgent goal and that the president cannot bring himself to accept it as an imperative.
Indeed, as the reporting shows, Trump’s dismissal of the very premises on which this imperative rests has led him to de-prioritize its importance — he has not convened a single Cabinet-level meeting about it. What’s more, the reporting, amazingly, tells us that U.S. officials may not be briefing Trump on the intelligence conclusion that Russia views its sabotage as an incomplete success. Why? Because “his daily intelligence update” is “often structured to avoid upsetting him.” In short, Trump’s emotional state may be dissuading officials from briefing him on intelligence that strongly suggests Russia has an incentive to do this again.
Let’s once again stress that there is a lot we don’t know about what Russia did or didn’t do, pending a full accounting from Robert S. Mueller III and congressional investigators. But this report illustrates with new vividness that Trump is deeply hostile to any efforts to even determine the basic facts of what happened, which could weaken our ability to respond to it next time. If it’s true that Russia views its electoral subterfuge operation as in many ways a success, this, too, is surely seen as a key component of that success.
* TRUMP SPREADS BLAME FOR ALABAMA LOSS: The Post has some great reporting on Trump’s mental state and internal actions in the wake of Trump-endorsed Roy Moore’s big loss:
The president … faulted his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, for selling him what one outside adviser described as “a bill of goods” in urging him to support Roy Moore, and he faulted Moore himself for being an abysmal candidate. … Exit polls Tuesday in Alabama … showed him at 48 percent approval. One adviser said Trump on Wednesday dismissed his poll results in Alabama and nationwide by saying they were “fake” and instead talked about his accomplishments.
Meanwhile, some Republicans are urging Trump to get better political advisers to avoid such disasters, but this seems to miss the point: There are no signs that Trump will ever be rational in making such decisions.
* BANNON’S DAMAGE TO GOP MAY BE JUST BEGINNING: After the Alabama debacle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans think there are two other Senate seats Stephen K. Bannon could cost them, reports the New York Times:
McConnell … and his lieutenants … have identified at least two additional campaigns where they believe Bannon-backed candidates could weaken the party. Mr. McConnell’s allies plan to intervene as aggressively as needed in Arizona, where Kelli Ward, a far-right former state legislator, is seeking the seat that will be vacated by Senator Jeff Flake, and in Nevada, where Danny Tarkanian, a perennial candidate who has branded himself as a Trump cheerleader, is challenging Senator Dean Heller in a Republican primary race. Both candidates, McConnell advisers said, would be completely intolerable as general election nominees.
And of course, after Alabama, Democrats need to flip only two seats (while losing none of their own) to take the majority, which is not easy but is plausible.
* TRUMP ISN’T CUTTING BANNON LOOSE: The Times also reports:
Behind the scenes, some advisers hoped the loss would persuade Mr. Trump to stop listening to Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist who has vowed war against the Republican establishment. But Mr. Trump talked with Mr. Bannon for 15 minutes by phone on Tuesday, aides said, and seemed disinclined to cut the adviser from his circle.
In a way, cutting Bannon loose would require Trump to acknowledge that Trumpism is the problem, and that doesn’t seem like something he’d be inclined to do.
* TRUMP IS UNITING DEMOCRATS: The Post reports that some Democrats think the Alabama results show a path for the party away from the divisions that persisted after their 2016 loss. Democratic pollster Zac McCrary:
“There is a lot of chatter about 2020 and the Hillary wing versus the Bernie wing, and all this kind of stuff,” he said. “But I think generally what we have seen in these special elections is that those ideological gradations have not been that relevant. Any decent candidate can harness the anti-Trump sentiment.”
That last point is also why, post-Alabama, we may see more Democratic candidates entering House races on tough political terrain.
* DEMS PREDICT WIDER FIELD IN GOVERNORS’ RACES: The Associated Press reports that Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who heads the Democratic gubernatorial campaign arm, predicts the demographics of the Alabama win could put many more gubernatorial seats in play:
Republicans already were set to defend open governor’s seats in traditional battlegrounds like Michigan and Ohio. But Inslee said the Alabama results highlight openings in GOP-held Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina, among others. … Kansas Democrats also have a competitive primary for governor amid widespread dissatisfaction over outgoing Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s sweeping tax cuts that curtailed spending on education and infrastructure.
Picking off more gubernatorial mansions could have a big impact on the future of the Medicaid expansion, state-level climate policy, and even the drawing of House districts in the next decade.
* A BATTLE LOOMS OVER INFRASTRUCTURE: Politico reports that the White House is set to introduce a plan next year for $200 billion in federal infrastructure spending, with the rest of the funding coming from private and state sources. But:
None of the package’s details so far are music to the ears of Democrats, who have pitched their own proposal for $1 trillion in new federal infrastructure money and who have said they won’t support a plan stuffed with budget cuts and environmental rule rollbacks. An infrastructure package would need 60 votes in the Senate, making Democrats the key to its success, even before Alabama Sen.-elect Doug Jones’ upset victory Tuesday.
The Alabama win and Trump’s continuing unpopularity make it more likely that Democrats from Trump states hold the line and demand a serious expenditure with no tax break and privatization scheme.
* COULD GERRYMANDERING COST DEMS THE MAJORITY? Political scientist Alan Abramowitz offers a new data crunch on the likely impact of pro-GOP gerrymandering on the 2018 battle for the House, and concludes:
Democrats will need a margin of at least four points on the generic ballot in order to win a majority of seats in the House in the 2018 midterm election. In recent weeks, Democrats have been averaging a lead of between eight and 10 points … that large a lead on the generic ballot would predict a popular vote margin of around five points and a gain of between 30 and 33 seats in the House — enough to give Democrats a modest but clear majority.
The generic polling matchup alone is not a sufficient indicator of the outcome; controlling for other factors gets Abramowitz to a five-point lead — enough for the majority. But it’s still early, and Dems need a large victory to even have a chance.