THE MORNING PLUM:
Here’s where we are today: President Trump’s allies fear that refusing an interview with the special counsel, as his lawyers want, could trigger a destructive showdown that could go all the way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the White House is still mulling whether to release Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s rebuttal to the Nunes memo — which means suppressing it remains a real possibility.
Both are reminders that, generally speaking, it remains unknown just how far Trump will go to evade accountability. And that’s why you should pay attention to the argument under way among center-right writers over just how much damage Trump is doing and just how complicit the GOP is in enabling that damage.
Writing for the Atlantic, Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch argue that GOP voters now have a moral obligation to vote out the GOP Congress, because its enabling of Trump has become a “danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy.” This morning, Ross Douthat responds to Wittes and Rauch, arguing that Trump’s authoritarianism has not materialized to the degree that many feared; that Republicans have largely made good on their tacit pledge to “contain” him; and that, as long as this endures, the case alleging full-scale GOP complicity is weak.
But Douthat understates the damage that Trump has already wrought and is currently in the process of doing. And a full acknowledgment of those realities both undermines the case that Republicans have contained him and underscores that they are enabling degradation that will continue to be severe — in the best-case scenario.
First, there’s Trump’s serial norm-shredding on his finances. Trump’s original refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to divest in his holdings and the nonstop continued self-dealing have produced a situation in which we cannot know how much he and his family are directly profiting off of many facets of his actions in office. Republicans have done nothing meaningful about any of those things. In some cases they have actively blocked efforts to force transparency. GOP candidates and party committees have staged political events at his businesses, joining foreign governments in shoveling cash into his pockets. Republicans are rewarding Trump’s shredding of norms by handing his businesses money.
There is an odd tendency among pundits to treat this conduct as somehow separate from his autocratic assaults on the integrity of our democracy on other fronts, but it actually constitutes the other side of the same Trump-visage-stamped coin. Republicans are actively enabling it and will continue to do so as long as they control Congress. We have no idea what sort of damaging precedent this will set going forward if Trump gets away with it. The only conceivable way he won’t is if Democrats capture the House and conduct serious oversight.
The damage is already very serious
Second, Trump’s ongoing assaults on law enforcement, and his active encouraging of outside allied efforts such as the Nunes memo, are currently doing untold damage. Morale at the FBI is reported to be plummeting. The Nunes memo is part of a much broader perversion of the House Intelligence Committee’s basic function into a kind of fortress protecting Trump from accountability. Because committees conducting oversight on law enforcement and government spying powers have a crucial role in maintaining public confidence in our government, this is an extremely serious abuse of power. It wouldn’t be possible without broad acquiescence from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans.
It is true that Republicans have walked a careful line, with some signaling that quashing the Mueller probe will not be tolerated, with the result (as Douthat notes) that the investigation continues. It is also true that Trump could still release Schiff’s rebuttal to the Nunes memo, or if he doesn’t, that the full GOP-controlled House could vote to release it. Either of those would help.
But serious damage has already been done. Public opinion among Republicans has turned against the FBI as an institution. We cannot know what consequences will flow from the fact that GOP voters have been bombarded for months with the idea that our law enforcement institutions have been corrupted to their core and are carrying out a Deep-State Plot to depose the duly elected Trump. As Jonathan Chait notes, this carefully laid foundation of GOP opinion could make it easier for Republicans to refuse to act later if Mueller uncovers serious wrongdoing.
Voters take their cues from elected leaders, and GOP leaders at best have done far too little to prevent that Deep-State-Coup narrative from taking hold among their voters. In so doing, as Brian Beutler argues, Republicans have basically normalized a much broader arsenal of “propaganda and bad-faith argument as ordinary brickbats of political war,” with long-term consequences that we can only guess at. Republicans have either gone along with, or actively participated in, efforts by Trump and his allies to prepare a large swath of the country to dismiss the legitimacy of any outcome in which serious wrongdoing is discovered and accountability is meted out in kind.
This threatens untold damage to our civic culture, and it is a situation that Republicans have currently wrought. The only way to mitigate this is for Democrats to take back the House and demonstrate to the country what functional oversight, undertaken in good faith, really looks like. We don’t know if a further slide into autocracy will happen. But, whatever GOP “containment” has or has not been exercised thus far, the slide is already real, Republicans have already facilitated it, and a more precipitous slide remains a real threat due to conditions that they actively participated in creating.
* TRUMP ALLIES URGE COMPROMISE WITH MUELLER: Trump’s lawyers are advising against a sit-down interview with Robert S. Mueller III. But Politico reports that some of his outside allies want him to seek a compromise:
A complete refusal to cooperate with the special counsel’s Russia investigation could trigger a Supreme Court battle that many legal experts and Trump allies believe the president would lose, at a huge political cost. … [Roger] Stone and at least two other people who regularly speak to Trump — Newsmax publisher Chris Ruddy and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — are instead advising that the president offer Mueller a compromise of responding to questions in writing only.
That isn’t much of a compromise, and Mueller may reject it. But this underscores how frightened Trump’s allies are of an interview that would basically be a minefield of self-incrimination.
* BUDGET DEAL NEARS: The Senate leadership in both parties is closing in on a deal to bust spending caps and fund the government for two years. The Post gets the numbers:
Under tentative numbers discussed by congressional aides who were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations, defense spending would get an $80 billion boost above the existing $549 billion in spending for 2018. Nondefense spending would rise by $63 billion from its current $516 billion. The 2019 budget would include similar increases.
That gives Trump the boost in military spending he wants, and Democrats their boost in domestic spending. If this goes through, the question is whether the House can pass something that gives something to both sides.
* DEMS POUR MONEY INTO STATE LEGISLATIVE RACES: The New York Times reports that a Dem-aligned group led by former attorney general Eric Holder is set to pour big money into obscure state legislative races across the country in 2018:
The group [is] determined to deny Republicans so-called trifectas in state governments — places where a single party controls the governorship and an entire legislature … The group’s list of high-priority states includes most of the critical states in presidential elections.
Preventing total GOP control in as many states as possible could block lopsided pro-GOP congressional maps in the next decade and avoid a repeat of the last decade’s disaster.
* DEMS GRAB ANOTHER SEAT IN DEEP RED TERRITORY: Last night, Democrat Mike Revis won a special election for a state legislative seat in Missouri. Reid Wilson explains:
If Revis’s lead holds, it would mark a significant swing from 2016, when President Trump won the district by a 61 percent to 33 percent margin. Four years before that, Mitt Romney beat President Obama in the district, south and west of St. Louis, by a 55- to 43-percent margin.
It’s another sign of the energy on the Democratic side putting deep red territory in play, which continues to bode well for 2018.
* DEMS HOLD ADVANTAGE IN BATTLE FOR HOUSE: The punditry has swung toward a Trump/GOP comeback, based on the economy and Trump’s slightly rebounding approval. But National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar diagnoses the situation much more accurately:
If there’s one constant that strategists in both parties acknowledge, it’s that Democratic turnout will be sky-high, fueled by deep-seated antipathy towards Trump. … For Republicans to mitigate the impact, they need to persuade enough independent voters to support them and turn out their own voters in similar numbers. … They could hang on to many of their most-vulnerable seats, but still see the bottom fall out because of red-hot Democratic intensity and lackluster GOP preparation. It’s why Democrats still hold the edge in the battle for House control, even if the anti-Trump tsunami never materializes.
By the way, ignore the punditry that tells you Dems are overconfident. They know this is still very much up in the air and that there’s tons of work to be done.
* PRESSURE BUILDS ON TRUMP TO RELEASE DEM REBUTTAL: The Hill has a good piece reporting that it is growing increasingly difficult for Trump to refrain from releasing Adam Schiff’s rebuttal to the Nunes memo:
Congressional Republicans will be in a tough spot if Trump does oppose the release of the document — a move that would almost certainly ignite a firestorm of claims that he is attempting to obstruct justice.
Remember, Ryan is on record supporting release of Schiff’s rebuttal, so the failure to do so now will look like a straight-up coverup for Trump’s obstruction.
* AND NUNES STAYS IN HIS SAFE SPACE: CNN’s Brian Stelter tracks Rep. Devin Nunes’s media appearances since releasing his memo, which was widely panned:
Nunes is telling people to stay tuned, promising more revelations to come — but he’s really only speaking to Trump’s base. He has declined non-Fox interview requests and avoided opportunities to speak with the Capitol Hill press corps. He briefly spoke with The Weekly Standard to clear up something he said on Fox last Friday. And he called into Rush Limbaugh’s conservative talk show on Monday. Other than that, it’s been all Fox, according to transcript searches.
This is hardly surprising, because outside of the Fox/Trump bubble, the Nunes memo has been brutally unmasked as the total fiasco and sham it is.