THE MORNING PLUM:
The New York Times’s blockbuster new report last night adds extensive new detail to our understanding of just how far President Trump and the White House went to try to derail the probe into Russian sabotage of our election and possible Trump campaign conspiracy with those efforts.
The new information also strengthens the obstruction-of-justice case against Trump and the White House, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me in an interview this morning.
“The allegations in the Times piece, if accurate, provide further potential evidence that the White House was engaged in an effort to obstruct justice,” Schiff said. He suggested three of the main revelations in the Times piece should be looked at as part of a pattern. Here they are:
- Last March, Trump ordered White House counsel Donald McGahn to try to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Justice Department investigation into collusion. When this effort failed, Trump raged, saying Sessions should be protecting him from the probe, and asking: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
- An aide to Sessions asked a staffer on Capitol Hill for dirt on then-FBI director James B. Comey, to help Sessions place negative articles on him (which the Justice Department denies).
- The letter that Trump originally drafted firing Comey — whose release was blocked by his advisers — contained an explicit reference to the Russia probe in the first sentence, according to the Times’s sources. The White House had previously told the Times that the letter didn’t mention the Russia probe.
Schiff noted that these are linked in the sense that they suggest both how badly Trump wanted to shut down the probe and just how far the White House — and, possibly, Sessions — went in order to conceal that this was the real reason Trump wanted Comey gone. (Trump fired Comey after demanding his loyalty and admitted it was due to the Russia investigation.) The Times reporter who broke this story, Michael S. Schmidt, told the Lawfare podcast that all these revelations are being examined by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The claim that Sessions wanted to plant negative stories on Comey suggests that the attorney general might have been “trying to set up some predicate for firing him without disclosing what the true reason was,” Schiff told me. “That suggests they wanted to build a case publicly to fire Comey. If this was part of an effort to conceal the real motive for firing Comey, that’s very pertinent to obstruction of justice.”
The Times’s claim that the letter from Trump firing Comey did mention the Russia probe, and that the White House originally said otherwise, may be connected to that, Schiff noted. “If it’s accurate that the White House said this document said nothing about the Russia investigation, and that turned out to be another false statement, that may be further evidence of corrupt intent in concealing, again, the true motivation behind the Comey firing,” Schiff said. The challenge here is proving that Trump’s firing of Comey was part of a pattern that demonstrates an effort to frustrate the Russia probe with corrupt intent.
The Times piece also reports that Mueller is examining Trump’s role in helping Donald Trump Jr. craft a statement covering up the true rationale for his meeting with a Russian lawyer, which was taken to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. All these falsehoods, Schiff said, “could be construed as evidence of an attempt to obstruct justice and corrupt intent behind the firing of Comey.”
The House Intelligence Committee investigation
Here is a crucial point Schiff made to me: All of this bolsters the case for the House Intelligence Committee to bring back Sessions and Trump Jr. for questioning. Democrats want to bring back Trump Jr. to press for more information about a call he had with his father just after news of the Trump Tower meeting broke, which could shed light on what happened at that meeting. The Times confirmation that Mueller is probing why Trump helped put out a statement covering that up “heightens the importance of bringing Junior back in,” Schiff said.
Schiff noted that the Times’s reporting bolsters the case for bringing back Sessions as well, which Democrats have asked for. “It’s going to be important for us to get to the bottom of whether the … attorney general’s office was seeking to engage in a smear campaign against the director of the FBI to create a pretext for his firing,” Schiff said.
And Schiff told me committee Democrats have asked Republicans to bring in Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for Trump’s legal team. Michael Wolff’s new book reports that Corallo quit after thinking the statement lying about the Trump Tower meeting constituted obstruction of justice. “This makes his testimony before our committee very important,” Schiff said.
Schiff confirmed to me that all these requests have “gone nowhere” with Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee chair, and other Republicans. “They simply sit on the requests,” Schiff said.
Meanwhile, Nunes is going in another direction: He’s trying to force the Justice Department to cough up documents that will allegedly show that the genesis of the FBI probe itself is dubious, and Politico reports that Paul Ryan is siding with Nunes. But there are no indications of where Ryan stands on Nunes’s foot-dragging on all the questions about possible Trump/White House obstruction of justice — and those questions are only more serious in light of the Times’s new reporting.
* WHAT WOLFF GOT RIGHT: Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei acknowledge that parts of Wolff’s book are sloppy and factually wrong. But:
There are two things he gets absolutely right, even in the eyes of White House officials who think some of the book’s scenes are fiction: his spot-on portrait of Trump as an emotionally erratic president, and the low opinion of him among some of those serving him. … Wolff captures the contempt some Trump aides have for the president and his family.
True, but please remember that Wolff also concluded that many of the people around Trump don’t believe he belongs in the office at all.
* WHEN WILL THE DOW PARTY END? The Dow just broke another record, and James B. Stewart talks to experts who say the party has to end at some point, though it may not for a while. Market historian James Stack is interesting:
“If there are any certainties, one will be that this party will eventually come to an end,” Mr. Stack said. “A correction would be healthy. The longer we go without one, the greater the risk this will end badly. A lot of people will get hurt. And when it ends, it will end badly, and with high volatility.”
But as Stack also says, Trump constantly cites the bull market as proof that he’s Making America Great Again, which means he’s heavily invested in this going on forever.
* REPUBLICANS PLAY DOWN TRUMP’S DEMAND FOR WALL: The New York Times reports that the negotiations over protecting the “dreamers” is hung up on Trump’s demand for “THE WALL.” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) says Trump doesn’t really mean it:
“People want to paint his definition, that it’s some 2,000-mile-long, 30-foot-high wall of concrete … That’s not what he means, and that’s not what he’s trying to say. … There’s going to be border fencing in some areas, there’s going to be vehicular barricades, there’s going to be technology, greater manpower in some areas.”
So no huge gold-plated “TRUMP MADE AMERICA GREAT BY KEEPING OUT MEXICAN RAPISTS” sign?
* BUT TRUMP REALLY WANTS THAT WALL: The Wall Street Journal scoops the Trump administration’s new request from Congress: $18 billion for the wall alone. This means:
The request … would be a major expansion from the 654 miles of barrier now, bringing the total to nearly 1,000 miles — about half of the entire southwest border. … The total cost for the barriers would be $9 billion over the first five years and $8.7 billion over the next five years, the document said.
My guess is this will likely end with a compromise on added border security that Trump can call a “wall,” but there will be a lot of Trump tantrums along the way.
* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT GOP BASE’S RAGE: CNN’s Lauren Fox reports that Republican lawmakers worry they need Trump to bless any deal that protects the dreamers, to protect them from the GOP base’s anger over it:
Republican lawmakers hope that if they can convince the President to endorse a bipartisan immigration bill, it will offer political cover in the midterms from a mobilized base that has long opposed anything that gives immigrants who entered the country illegally a shot at legal status.
The GOP base will be enraged at lawmakers who allow people brought here illegally as children to stay and work to support themselves. Galling, but at least this means a humane solution is possible.
* AND BANNON IS UNLIKELY TO GO QUIETLY: The Post takes stock of how quickly Stephen K. Bannon’s star has fallen amid his brawl with Trump. One source says the president is asking everyone to make a choice: him or Bannon. But:
Breitbart executives, along with [billionaire donor Rebekah] Mercer, who holds a minority stake, discussed pushing Bannon out of the company he helped make famous, according to four people familiar with the discussions. Among their concerns in doing so is the reaction of hard-line conservatives, who make up much of the site’s readership, and also of Bannon, who would be unlikely to leave quietly, the sources said.
It should be fun to see what leaving noisily looks like, given Bannon’s year of closeness with the president.