THE MORNING PLUM:
Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has given a remarkable interview published by Vanity Fair that is getting some attention because it confirms once again that the most powerful person in the world is a raging, abusive megalomaniac. We learn that President Trump erupted at his staff over accurate media coverage of his paltry inaugural crowd; that officials competed for the title of most obsequious suck-up to Trump; and that Trump once commanded Priebus to swat a fly.
But buried in the piece is something potentially more important: revelations that shed light on Trump’s state of mind at key moments throughout his efforts to hamstring the investigation into Trump campaign collusion with Russian efforts to sabotage our democracy.
The piece tells us that very early on, Trump began to “lash out wildly” at law enforcement officials who were in a position to investigate his administration. Priebus and White House counsel Donald McGahn tried to stall the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. But Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s memo, Vanity Fair reports, gave Trump the “pretext” to go forward.
The word “pretext” is not used by Priebus. But the piece relies on extensive cooperation from Priebus, which suggests that this may be how Priebus viewed it. As you’ll recall, that “pretext” was Rosenstein’s memo excoriating Comey over the FBI’s mishandling of the Hillary Clinton probe — a memo Trump ordered up in a meeting just before firing Comey. If Priebus really viewed this as a “pretext,” or believed Trump did, you’d think that would be of interest to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is probing whether Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation constituted obstruction of justice.
“We already had some evidence that the Rosenstein memo was a pretext in the sense that Trump used it as an excuse to fire Comey for other reasons,” Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor who has co-authored a useful paper on presidential obstruction of justice, told me this morning. “The material in the Vanity Fair piece reinforces that impression . . . it’s another element that Mueller will want to look at.”
Mueller interviewed Priebus in October. “I suspect that Priebus has already been asked about Trump’s motivation for firing Comey and almost firing Sessions,” Posner told me, referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Vanity Fair piece, which is adapted from a forthcoming book by Chris Whipple, offers new details on Trump’s almost-firing of Sessions as well. It reports that Trump subjected Sessions to an abusive tirade for failing to protect him from the investigation, which was already known.
But the piece adds more. After Trump ordered Mueller fired in June by his White House counsel (who refused to carry out Trump’s directive), Trump ordered Priebus to “get Sessions’ resignation flat out,” according to a White House insider. That insider quotes Trump saying to Priebus: “Don’t give me any bulls—. Don’t try to slow me down like you always do. Get the resignation of Jeff Sessions.”
Priebus talked Trump out of it. But if this is right, it shows again that Trump may have wanted Sessions out and to replace him with an attorney general who would constrain the Mueller probe where Sessions did not. After all, Trump allegedly had just ordered Mueller fired but had failed to get his wish. It will not be easy to prove Trump obstructed justice — it will require showing that he acted with “corrupt intent” and an “improper purpose,” such as protecting himself and his associates from accountability — but this adds to a pattern that appears to shed light on Trump’s state of mind in this regard.
“There’s often a tendency for observers to think that Trump is just out of control,” Posner told me. “This [Vanity Fair interview] gave more of an impression of him being instrumentally rational in getting what he wants. The more you think that Trump is acting pursuant to a clear plan in his mind to protect himself and his family from these investigations, the more you’ll think that it’s obstruction of justice.”
“He didn’t just scream at people and leave it at that,” Posner added of Trump. “He did all kinds of things over many months to try to derail the investigation. In a few cases he was deterred by his aides. But in many cases he was able to act. That strengthens the argument that he acted, as the law requires, with improper purpose or corrupt intent. It means he intended to block this investigation because it threatened him politically.”
To be sure, there is a separate set of questions over whether a president can be held criminally liable for obstruction of justice. But this isn’t just about that. It’s also about learning what really happened for the purposes of basic accountability. Mueller could end up establishing a pattern of very serious or potentially impeachable misconduct. This would have important political significance (whether or not congressional Republicans act on it, which they probably won’t). And this new interview suggests that’s a more likely outcome.
* BIPARTISAN DEAL WOULD GIVE TRUMP HIS WALL: A bipartisan group of senators reached a deal on a bill to be voted on today that would protect the “dreamers” in exchange for giving Trump a fair amount of what he wants:
[The bill] would fulfill Trump’s calls to grant legal status to 1.8 million young immigrants and would appropriate $25 billion for southern border security construction projects over the next decade — not immediately, as Trump wants. The bill also would curb family-based immigration programs, but not to the extent Trump is seeking, and would not end a diversity visa lottery program that he wants eliminated.
Weirdly, a Trump official claims this would do nothing for the border. This probably won’t get 60 votes, but what’s key is that it get more votes than another bill that mirrors Trump’s full wish list.
* RIGHT-WING BILL MIGHT NOT PASS HOUSE: Politico reports that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is under pressure to allow a vote on a bill championed by House conservatives that is far to the right of the above bipartisan compromise. But:
GOP leaders are far from the 218 votes needed to pass it, according to multiple senior Republican sources familiar with the results of a tentative vote count Wednesday. And the speaker has told some members privately that he does not want to put the bill up for a roll call unless it can pass.
You know what could pass the House? A bipartisan compromise that includes protections for the dreamers and billions in wall money. But Ryan won’t allow a vote on it unless Trump okays it.
* WHITE HOUSE VOWS NO COMPROMISE ON DREAMERS: The New York Times reports that multiple White House advisers are promising Trump won’t budge an inch on his demand for the nativist wish list in exchange for protecting dreamers:
Several senior White House advisers told reporters . . . that Mr. Trump would not relent in backing his hard-line immigration principles and said Dreamers should blame Democrats if legislation did not pass. One senior adviser . . . said the president had made “dramatic concessions” by agreeing to a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants. Another made it clear that Mr. Trump would not compromise any further.
The notion that this position represents a compromise is deeply, demonstrably absurd, and let’s hope news organizations convey this clearly to viewers and readers.
* SHOOTER ‘ALWAYS HAD GUNS ON HIM’: The alleged shooter who killed 17 in a Florida mass shooting is Nikolas Cruz, 19 years old. A classmate tells a local news outlet this:
“He always had guns on him and stuff like that. . . . a lot of kids threw jokes around . . . saying that he’s the one to shoot up the school, but it turns out everyone predicted it. It’s crazy.”
* TRUMP BUDGET CUTS BACKGROUND CHECK FUNDS: There’s been another mass shooting, but the Huffington Post reports that Trump’s budget slashes funding earmarked for improving the state and national gun background check system by 16 percent:
His proposed cuts are also wildly out of step with polls showing near-universal support for strengthening background checks to apply to all gun sales, not just those done by licensed firearms dealers.
The National Rifle Association spent more than $30 million to help elect Trump president.
* McCONNELL URGES TRUMP NOT TO FIRE KELLY: Despite evidence that Chief of Staff John F. Kelly knew of domestic abuse allegations against Rob Porter but did nothing, the Washington Examiner reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is privately urging Trump to keep him:
A source familiar with the discussion told the Washington Examiner . . . that McConnell advised Trump during a recent phone call to avoid making any significant changes to his senior-level staff . . . the Kentucky Republican later told associates that because of Trump’s mercurial nature, he’s unsure whether the president will listen to him and others who are advocating for Kelly to stay put.
Never mind those domestic abuse allegations. What really matters is that Kelly is minimizing the chaos (at least somewhat), making a Dem Senate takeover less likely.
* A KEY REASON DEMS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE: E.J. Dionne Jr. looks at the Democrats’ recent string of victories and points out:
These victories are also the product of a demobilization of Trump’s own constituency. The hardest of the hardcore Trump loyalists are still likely to cast ballots this year. But he also drew support from loyal Republicans and white working-class swing voters. Many of them were not enthralled by him but couldn’t abide Hillary Clinton — or were just plain angry. It’s hard to imagine they’re overjoyed with the past 13 months.
Again and again, we’ve seen turnout supercharged in Democratic areas, even as Trump areas have been far less energized. The big question is whether that holds through November.