THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump has boundless faith in his ability to survive any financial, political, legal or public relations mess, by resorting to what philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously described as “bulls–––.” Time and again over the years, he has fallen back on his trademark tactics: bluffing with abandon; suing to overwhelm his antagonists with legal bills; fighting back as hard as possible, solely to dissuade future foes; flooding the media zone with confusion-sowing falsehoods; and, above all, never admitting to error, wrongdoing or deliberate lying.
But now, with Stormy Daniels speaking out about Trump — even as Trump’s legal team is falling apart, just as the Mueller probe is set to hit its climax — it’s hard to escape the sense that Trump’s titanic talent for bulls––––ing may be faltering in the face of the crush of events he now faces.
On CBS last night, Daniels finally told her tale about the 2006 affair she claims she had with Trump. In so doing, she opened up new narrative lines that ensure this story will continue. She allowed that she had accepted $130,000 in hush money from Trump lawyer Michael Cohen before the election, and admitted she lied by saying the affair never happened once the news of that payment broke. But she claimed she did so because she was legally threatened, which CBS reports came from Cohen. Daniels also claimed that after trying to go public with her story about Trump in 2011, a man physically threatened her in front of her child.
Daniels’s new comments mean the focus will continue on questions such as whether Trump knew about the payment his lawyer made and whether it constituted an unlawful campaign contribution, as former FEC chairman Trevor Potter claims it does.
Cohen’s lawyer sent Daniels’s lawyer a cease-and-desist letter accusing Daniels of false statements about him. This morning, Daniels’s lawyer Michael Avenatti, fired back by claiming that he and Daniels are only “getting started,” adding that Cohen has “zero credibility” and that the full truth will all come out before long. In other words, the story will continue — with a focus both on Trump’s treatment of women and his tendency to surround himself with thuggish characters.
CNN reports that Trump “has become irked by the wall-to-wall coverage of the alleged affair on news shows in recent days.” But Trump is largely constrained from hitting back, since tweeting angrily in response would only draw more attention to those elements of the story.
And there’s more: In addition to being sued by Daniels, who wants to get her nondisclosure agreement with Trump invalidated, Trump faces two other new female accusers who have initiated legal actions of their own designed to free them up to talk. All this activity could result in discovery and even Trump depositions that keep these stories alive, too.
It is at precisely this moment that Trump’s legal team is dwindling and in disarray in the face of another mounting threat, this one from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. The Post reports that Joseph diGenova will not represent Trump, leaving him temporarily “without a criminal defense attorney.” Trump furiously tweeted that lawyers are falling all over themselves to represent Trump, but everyone knows that’s utter nonsense.
As it is, Trump had wanted diGenova because he was impressed by his appearances on Fox News. And in that context, this, from The Post’s story, is a notable detail:
Trump had hoped diGenova could serve as a surrogate in television interviews and play the role of attack dog in criticizing the Mueller probe.
Trump continues to approach the Mueller probe as a P.R. problem — i.e., one that he and his allies can bluster their way out of in conventional Trumpian fashion — rather than as something potentially a lot worse. Remember, this comes just as Trump and what’s left of his legal team are trying to decide whether Trump should sit for an interview with Mueller. Trump has repeatedly said he relishes facing Mueller, and the lawyer advising caution — John Dowd — is now gone. Trump’s instinct to bluff and bluster his way through the Mueller probe is more likely to go unchecked — even as he is less likely to fully prepare for the very real legal perils an interview will pose.
The imperative of fighting back has long been central to Trump’s public philosophy. As he put it in his 2007 book: “If you’re afraid to fight back people will think of you as a loser, a ‘schmuck!'”
But Trump is constrained from fighting back against his female accusers. And the more he succumbs to his instinct to “fight back” against Mueller, the worse off he will be.
* TRUMP EXPELS RUSSIAN DIPLOMATS: The president today ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian intelligence officers and diplomats:
Monday’s actions were in response to the March 4 nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, which was blamed on Russia and critically injured a former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia. … The U.S. move came in coordination with 14 European nations, which almost simultaneously announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats on Monday in a broad attempt to disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence network across Europe.
Now how about organizing a serious effort to disrupt Russian sabotage of our upcoming election, which U.S. intelligence officials say is already in the works?
* DEMOCRATS TARGET DEVIN NUNES: NBC News reports that Democrats and local prosecutor Andrew Janz are hoping to oust Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and Nunes’s shilling for Trump has enabled him to raise real money:
“My opponent is front and center in all of this, and so we really believe that removing this man from office is a national imperative,” Janz told NBC News. “This is the only way to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016 and to make sure that Russia’s involvement in our elections never happens again.”
Nunes’s district went for Trump by 10 points, so winning here is a tall order, but even making it a race is crucial, given Nunes’s role in shielding Trump from accountability.
* BIG RETIREMENT SIGNALS TROUBLE FOR GOP: Over the weekend, Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) announced he won’t seek reelection in his district in the Philadelphia suburbs, offering this rationale:
Costello cited the “political environment” for his decision. “Whether it’s Stormy Daniels, or passing an omnibus spending bill that the president threatens to veto after promising to sign, it’s very difficult to move forward in a constructive way today,” Costello contended.
Costello also reflexively blamed “the left” for fostering a toxic environment, but everyone knows the real reason is Trump — and he’s going to keep it up.
* DEMOCRATS SEE GUN SAFETY AS POLITICAL WINNER: McClatchy reports that Democrats are increasingly campaigning on gun safety in races around the country, and see the weekend protests as a sign they should keep going:
Already, they’ve used the issue to raise money and recruit volunteers. They’ve been emboldened in their agenda, proposing farther-reaching legislation. In some cases, the candidates have even used the issue in early campaign ads against their opponents.
Obviously Democrats in deep-red districts will refrain from this, but if you see more of them running on the issue in true swing areas, it’ll be another sign that the cultural shift is real.
* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT GUN ISSUE IN SUBURBS: The New York Times adds that even some Republicans see a need to bend with the political winds, particularly in suburban areas:
Republicans have already been struggling to keep their footing in densely populated suburbs where Mr. Trump is unpopular and the N.R.A. is an object of widespread scorn. The gun issue appears likely to deepen Republicans’ problems in these areas, further cleaving moderate, pocketbook-minded suburban voters from the party’s more hard-line rural base and raising the risks for Republicans in swing House districts around the country.
Dan Eberhart, a top conservative donor, adds: “The N.R.A. is really out of step with suburban G.O.P. voters.”
* BROAD SUPPORT FOR GUN REGULATIONS: A new Fox News poll finds that voters prioritize protections against gun violence over protecting gun rights by 53-40. And:
There’s substantial support for specific measures to reduce gun violence, including: requiring criminal background checks on all gun buyers (91 percent), requiring mental health checks on all gun buyers (84 percent), raising the age to buy all guns to 21 (72 percent), putting armed guards in schools (69 percent), and banning assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons (60 percent).
However, there is one proposal that garners majority opposition: allowing more teachers to carry. That is, the approach espoused by Trump and the NRA.
* AND THE MARCHERS WON’T SUCCUMB TO CYNICISM: E.J. Dionne Jr. notes that the big gun marches were met with the usual cynical claims that nothing will happen, and adds that the marchers chanting “vote them out” might have accomplished something new:
Guns have long been a voting issue for those who insist that any and every restriction on firearms is a danger to freedom. These marches finally established guns as a voting issue for those who … place the desire to save innocent lives ahead of preserving unlimited access to weapons. … It is not romanticizing the young to say that at times in our history, only those not beaten down by the defeats of the past could find the courage and the strategic initiative to win old fights in new ways.
It’s worth remembering that the polling now shows that larger percentages are strongly in favor of new gun regulations than are strongly against them. Let’s hope this intensity holds through November.