THE MORNING PLUM:
We cannot know for sure why President Trump unleashed a volley of attacks over the weekend on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Perhaps he is edging toward an effort to remove him. Or perhaps he is not — the White House last night insisted he isn’t — and is instead merely trying to tar the Mueller probe in the minds of his voters, in preparation for dismissing any Mueller findings of serious misconduct as illegitimate.
But here’s what we do know: Most Republicans failed to seize this occasion to send a clear signal that any effort to remove Mueller will be met with serious consequences.
A new report on Trump’s state of mind from the New York Times underscores why this should worry us a great deal. Relying on numerous people close to Trump, it says he decided to attack Mueller over the advice of his advisers because he “ultimately trusts only his own instincts,” with the result that Trump is “newly emboldened” to “ignore the cautions of those around him.”
“For months, aides were mostly able to redirect a neophyte president with warnings about the consequences of his actions, and mostly control his public behavior,” the Times says. But some of his recent actions — his decisions to go ahead with tariffs and a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — have persuaded him that such warnings are overblown. Make sure not to miss this sentence:
Warnings of dire consequences from his critics have failed to materialize.
This helps explain why Trump unleashed his fury on Mueller over the weekend. In a tweet storm that was full of lies — see Glenn Kessler’s takedown of the specifics — Trump claimed that law enforcement is riddled with corruption and that the Mueller probe itself is illegitimate. To make this latter claim, Trump floated the intertwined falsehoods that the Democratic-funded Steele dossier triggered the probe (a lie) and that there was no legit basis for its genesis (also a lie).
This has renewed pressure on Republicans to sound the alarm that they would view any effort to remove Mueller as intolerable. With a few exceptions, most of them did nothing of the kind. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) declaration that Mueller should be left alone was conspicuously tepid. Senate GOP leaders and many top Republicans on the committees investigating the Russia affair remained silent.
Remember the larger context: Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared that there was no need for legislation to protect Mueller, because (he said) there is no effort “on the part of the White House to undermine the special counsel,” so Mueller “seems to need no protection.” Now that Trump himself has declared the Mueller probe illegitimate, there is no indication that McConnell’s thinking has changed.
From the very outset of his presidency, Trump has been testing what he can get away with in terms of hamstringing or derailing the probe. He has done this repeatedly.
- Last March, Trump ordered the White House counsel to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the probe with the explicit purpose of getting Sessions to protect him from it. Trump publicly declared his anger at Sessions over what he perceived as disloyalty toward him.
- Last May, Trump fired his FBI director, James B. Comey, after unsuccessfully trying to control his handling of the investigation, which led to Mueller’s appointment.
- Last June, Trump ordered his White House counsel to fire Mueller, which failed when the counsel threatened to quit.
- Earlier this year, Trump wanted the Nunes memo released to give him pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who currently oversees the Mueller probe, apparently to replace him with a loyalist.
Again and again, Trump actually did commit flagrant abuses of power for the express purpose of constraining or derailing an investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. The efforts toward Sessions failed — but Trump then tried to hound Sessions out of the job, almost certainly with the aim of installing someone who would protect him where Sessions did not. Trump’s successful ouster of Comey failed in the sense that it led to Mueller’s appointment — but Trump then tried to get Mueller fired. That failed, too — but now Trump is openly attacking Mueller’s investigation as illegitimate.
We can infer from this that, while Trump did back down temporarily after some of these failures to hamstring the probe, those failures did not constrain him from trying again, and again, and again. True, Trump might not take the final step of trying to remove Mueller. He might listen to those around him — and the occasional congressional Republican, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — who are telling him that this would fail catastrophically.
But Trump has apparently concluded that those issuing warnings of such dire consequences are wrong and that his instincts are right. (As Jonathan Chait notes, those instincts are all pulling Trump toward an effort to try to remove Mueller.) And Republicans are saying little to nothing to disabuse him of that notion.
Don’t take my word for it. The White House has now basically affirmed this to be the case.
* WHITE HOUSE ISN’T HEARING ‘OUTCRY’ OVER MUELLER: On CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” White House legislative director Marc Short was asked about Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) strong defense of Mueller. He replied:
“I’ve not heard a lot of outcry from Republicans. In all due respect to Jeff Flake, I’m not sure as far as him representing the Republican Party, couldn’t get re-elected in his own state today.”
Yep, that’s all true. Short went on to insist that trying to remove Mueller isn’t on the table. But what message will Trump take from this lack of an outcry?
After all, Short himself said, revealingly, that the most prominent voice warning Trump against targeting Mueller no longer represents the Republican Party. Why would Trump not translate this idea into a belief that he has a mandate from Republican voters to try to remove Mueller?
* TRUMP ‘DOESN’T NEED’ THE ADULTS IN THE ROOM: The Times also reports that Trump now believes he doesn’t need to rely on people such as chief of staff John F. Kelly, economic adviser Gary Cohn or former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson any longer:
His closest aides … say Mr. Trump now feels he doesn’t need the expertise of Mr. Kelly, Mr. Cohn or … Tillerson … If he once suspected they were smarter or better equipped to lead the country and protect his presidency, he doesn’t believe that now.
Well, that’s reassuring.
* DEMOCRATS LEAD IN GENERIC BALLOT MATCHUP: A new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll finds Americans want a Democratic-led Congress by 50-40. Independents agree by 48-36. And Democrats hold an enthusiasm advantage:
Sixty percent of Democratic voters say they have a high degree of interest in the upcoming elections (registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale), versus 54 percent of Republicans who say the same thing. In addition, 64 percent of 2016 Clinton voters say they have a high level of interest, compared with 57 percent of 2016 Trump voters.
The poll also finds that Trump’s approval has soared all the way up to 43 percent, still the lowest of any modern president at this point in their terms.
* DEMOCRATS POST BIG FUNDRAISING HAUL: R0ll Call reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $10.6 million in February — its largest second-month-of-the-year haul ever:
The DCCC raised $3.38 million from online donations in February, with an average online gift of $18. So far this cycle, the group has raised more than $50 million online, which includes 300,000 first-time online donors, and a total of $125 million this cycle. It ended February with $49 million in the bank.
That first-time-donors tally could be a key tell that Trump is activating people to get involved.
* SENATE REPUBLICANS BET BIG ON TRUMP: Politico reports that GOP strategists believe that going all in with Trump is their best route to salvaging the GOP Senate majority:
Despite his unpopularity on the national level, Republicans insist there isn’t a state on the Senate map where they are nervous about deploying Trump. Republicans reason that opposition to Trump is already baked into the Democratic electorate. They figure Democrats will be motivated to vote whether Trump shows up or not, so they might as well use him to fire up their base, too.
Perhaps, but that didn’t get the job done in Alabama or in Pennsylvania, did it?
* THE MAP IS A WHOLE LOT BROADER: The Post reports that after their big apparent win in Pennsylvania, Democrats are now preparing to contest more than 100 districts, including in places that once seemed unthinkable:
Many of those newly contested races are starting to come into focus in suburbs where, like the neighborhoods outside Pittsburgh that backed Democrat Conor Lamb, mainstream Republican voters embraced Trump in 2016 but have been drifting away in recent months. … In the Midwest, South and West, Republican-held districts that had not appeared on the map in recent years, or ever, are in Democrats’ sights.
One key test will be how many more Democratic candidates like Conor Lamb — social moderates with strong bios who can appeal to blue-collar whites on economic issues — emerge in coming weeks.
* BIG OMNIBUS COMING, WITH ONLY FIVE DAYS LEFT: Politico notes that Congress has its work cut out for it this week, with an omnibus spending bill that faces a March 23 government-funding deadline:
The massive omnibus spending package — which will fund the government through the end of September — could include language on everything from campaign finance to pesticides to labor policy. It is scheduled come out today. That will give Congress five days to get it through both chambers. What can go wrong?
And what ever happened with that effort to try to attach to the omnibus a deal protecting the “dreamers”? Their futures are still in limbo, in case you’ve forgotten.
* AND HERE’S WHAT MATTERS MOST IN 2018: E.J. Dionne Jr. spells out why Democrats must put aside their internal disagreements:
In 2018, one priority truly outranks all others: Will Democrats take hold of at least one house of Congress to provide a real check on President Trump’s abuses? … removing a supine GOP from power in Congress is the one and only way voters can use the ballot box to hold the president accountable. Whatever their differences, Democrats will not allow Russia’s meddling or the many forms of Trump administration corruption to be buried.
The only way to ensure any serious effort at accountability for Trump is for Democrats to take back the House.