THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump is apparently getting legal advice from his television set — and this, among other things, appears to have persuaded him to reshuffle his team of lawyers, with an eye toward getting a lot more aggressive with Robert S. Mueller III. Trump is in a fury over the Mueller investigation — which means the attacks on Mueller could continue or grow worse.
But if that does happen, it may actually end up putting Trump in greater political danger than he might have faced otherwise — and, paradoxically, may leave him more exposed to accountability, rather than less.
The Washington Examiner reports today that Republicans fear that Trump’s escalating attacks on Mueller and the Russia investigation could further imperil their chances of holding on to the House. Republicans had hoped to use their tax cuts to reassure swing voters that things are getting done despite the constant turmoil in the White House. But Trump is using his Twitter megaphone to amplify the attacks on Mueller rather than to sell the tax plan.
“He’s a mercurial figure,” one Republican congressman in a tough district told the Examiner. “If he’d put the Twitter feed away, what a glorious thing; what a glorious thing. But I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
In pure political terms, Trump’s attacks on Mueller put Republican members of Congress — particularly vulnerable ones — in a difficult spot. There’s the fact that they drown out the GOP’s tax-cut message. But there’s another dimension to this as well.
On the one hand, the attacks on Mueller probably rally GOP base voters to Trump’s side and against the special counsel and his investigation, which means any public statements defending Mueller might antagonize those voters or diminish their enthusiasm. This might help explain why so many GOP lawmakers remained silent. But not defending Mueller reinforces the general message that Republicans are unwilling to act as a check on Trump’s excesses. This could further anger and energize Democratic voters and possibly further alienate swing voters — particularly more affluent GOP-leaning suburbanites who might have been willing to suppress their gag reflex about Trump and vote for their GOP incumbent and the GOP economic agenda anyway.
It’s hard to say exactly what Trump’s attacks on Mueller will mean for the midterms. But a recent CNN poll provides a clue. It found that 61 percent of Americans say the Russia affair is “a serious matter that should be investigated,” while only 34 percent say it’s “mainly an effort to discredit Donald Trump’s presidency.” By contrast, 71 percent of Republicans adopt the latter view, suggesting the pressure GOP lawmakers must be under to side with Trump when he rails against the Mueller probe as an illegitimate “witch hunt.”
But note this demographic breakdown from the CNN poll: The Russia affair is described as a “serious matter that should be investigated” by 60 percent of people younger than 45; 71 percent of nonwhites; 65 percent of women; and 67 percent of college-educated whites. As recent elections have illustrated, those voter groups, having been energized by the Trump presidency, are heavily driving the Democratic anti-Trump resurgence.
Thanks to Conor Lamb’s apparent win and the redrawing of the Pennsylvania map, there are now at least 25 GOP-held seats in districts carried in 2016 by Hillary Clinton — more than enough to secure the Democratic majority. Lamb’s showing also illustrated that under certain conditions, districts that went for Trump but have a suburban, more educated component (Pennsylvania’s 18th District includes a slice of the Pittsburgh suburbs) are also at risk for Republicans.
A note about these college-educated, suburban voters, mostly women, who are driving Democratic wins: Fieldwork by Theda Skocpol and Lara Putnam illustrates that the Democratic resurgence is being heavily driven by organizing among ordinary women across the country who are deeply concerned about our current civic health and are working to reinvigorate our democracy against Trump’s degradation of it. Trump’s attacks on Mueller — which are attacks on the rule of law and our institutions, all designed to help him evade accountability — may help intensify this sense of degradation. And as the Mueller probe advances, new revelations — combined with escalating Trump attacks in response — could worsen this dynamic.
Bottom line: It’s hard to see how Trump’s assaults on Mueller help the GOP chances of holding the House. And whatever Mueller finds, the only thing that will determine whether Trump ever faces any serious accountability and oversight is the question of whether Democrats take back the House. If Mueller finds impeachable conduct, it is highly likely that only a Democratic-controlled House would respond in kind. Beyond Mueller, a Democratic House would mean robust oversight over the scandals ensnaring Trump officials and over Trump’s own nonstop self-dealing and profiteering off the presidency, and even a serious effort to shake loose Trump’s tax returns, which would offer untold revelations.
Whatever Trump’s television set is telling him, his attacks on Mueller probably make this outcome at least marginally more likely.
* TRUMP IS ‘WATCHING TELEVISION’ ABOUT PROBE: Trump just hired a new lawyer who claims Trump is the target of an FBI conspiracy, and The Post dives deep into his state of mind about his legal travails:
The hiring caught many of his advisers by surprise, prompting fears that Trump is preparing for bigger changes to his legal team … Trump is not consulting with top advisers … on his Russia legal choices or his comments about the probe, according to one person with knowledge of his actions … He is instead watching television and calling friends, this person said.
This may signal that he won’t be listening to those counseling cooperation with the probe for much longer.
* TRUMP’S LAWYERS STRUGGLE TO ‘MANAGE’ HIM: The Post story also reports this, according to people familiar with Trump’s relationships with his legal team:
The lawyers employ a range of strategies to try to manage the impulses of their uncooperative client, these people have said. … Trump vents about the probe to his lawyers frequently … His lawyers have told him that the White House is required to provide some minimum cooperation with Mueller and have reassured him that they’re not leaving him exposed.
Trump will probably get a lot easier to manage once we learn more about what Mueller has discovered.
* TRUMP CLASHES WITH LAWYERS ABOUT INTERVIEW: The New York Times reports that Trump’s reshuffling of his legal team reflects his concern that the investigation is “bearing down on him more directly.” And:
Mr. Trump has questioned his lawyers’ approach and clashed with them about whether to be interviewed by Mr. Mueller. The president believes he is his best spokesman and can explain to Mr. Mueller that he did nothing wrong. The lawyers see little upside.
On this, at least, the lawyers are correct. It will be interesting to see whether Trump’s new hire tells him what he wants to hear — i.e., how awesomely he’d vanquish Mueller in an interview.
* TRUMP FUMES ABOUT INVESTIGATION: The Associated Press reports:
Trump has fumed to confidants that the Mueller probe is “going to choke the life out of” his presidency if allowed to continue indefinitely, according to an outside adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with the president.
The AP also notes that Trump’s attacks on Mueller have left House and Senate leaders “quiet” and “decidedly unruffled.” Good to see that Republicans are expressing such urgency.
* WHY MCCONNELL IS MUM ABOUT TRUMP’S ATTACKS ON MUELLER: People close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell serve up this explanation to CNN:
McConnell and Trump speak regularly and have a good working relationship, according to Senate aides, something that could be jeopardized if McConnell came out swinging whenever he had a disagreement with a presidential tweet. His reticence may also mean that when and if McConnell does speak out on some issue at some time, his words could carry more weight than if he was routinely publicized his concerns.
Yes, because Trump’s depiction of the Mueller probe as illegitimate is just another “presidential tweet.” McConnell will be asked about this any day now; we’ll see how forcefully he responds.
* SPENDING BILL MOVES FORWARD — WITH ‘DREAMERS’ STRANDED: Politico reports that congressional negotiators are closing in on a deal for an omnibus spending package. But:
The president also asked GOP leaders over the weekend to include a short-term patch shielding Dreamers from deportation for 2.5 years in return for $25 billion in wall funding. But Democrats — whose votes are needed for passage — balked at the idea, and Republicans appear ready to drop it.
This would have given Trump his wall only in exchange for a short-term fix for the dreamers, which would in effect leave their long-term fates unresolved.
* AND DEMOCRATS’ CHANCES OF TAKING HOUSE GET A BOOST: The Associated Press reports that the Supreme Court decision preserving the new, fairer House map in Pennsylvania could make it easier for Democrats to take back the House:
Under the new map, Democrats have a good chance to pick up three seats in the Philadelphia suburbs, and a fighting chance of flipping Republican districts in Harrisburg, Allentown and outside Pittsburgh, said Franklin and Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna. “Now, the Democrats nationally will look at Pennsylvania as one of the top priorities, for the obvious reason that of the 24 seats that they need, Pennsylvania has a reasonable chance of putting three in their corner,” Madonna said.
Under the old map, Republicans held a 13-5 edge in the state’s congressional delegation, even though Democrats have a registration advantage. Funny how a fairer map makes it harder for Republicans to win.