THE MORNING PLUM:
Now that President Trump has openly, explicitly confirmed in plain, intelligible language that he is seriously considering trying to remove special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, it is instructive to revisit all the times Republicans assured us that this couldn’t possibly happen.
This morning, Trump once again tweeted furiously about the Russia investigation, blasting it as a “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!” and railing that “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” Trump was referring to the news that the FBI raided the home and office of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and seized documents that include communications between the two men. The FBI is reportedly investigating whether Cohen committed bank fraud and campaign-finance violations related to his hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels before the election, among possible other matters.
Trump unleashed a tirade upon hearing this news. Asked if he would fire Mueller, Trump replied: “We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said, ‘You should fire him.'” (The raid on Cohen resulted from information collected by Mueller, but Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein decided it should be handled separately by other prosecutors.)
Trump probably can’t directly fire Mueller. But there are multiple things he could do instead, such as fire Rosenstein and order someone down the chain of command to fire Mueller, or replace Rosenstein with someone who would either ax Mueller or badly hamstring his investigation.
Now that Trump has confirmed he is seriously considering some sort of action against Mueller, Republicans will be asked once again if they will act to protect his investigation. After all, some Republicans have already sponsored bills that would create a process in which any removal of the special counsel would be subject to judicial review and reversed if it was not for good cause. But Republicans have yet to act on these. Here’s a timeline of the history:
- In June 2017, the New York Times reported that Trump began “entertaining the idea of firing” Mueller soon after he’d been appointed a month earlier. Trump’s advisers talked him out of it, but the Times added: “People close to Mr. Trump say he is so volatile they cannot be sure that he will not change his mind about Mr. Mueller if he finds out anything to lead him to believe the investigation has been compromised.” Trump has since repeatedly said he believes the investigation has been compromised, including again this morning.
- During that same month, Trump actually did order his White House counsel to fire Mueller, according to the Times’ reporting. Trump backed off when the counsel, Donald McGahn, refused the order and threatened to quit.
- In October of 2017, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who had co-authored a bill to protect Mueller, said he nonetheless saw no reason to move the legislation. Graham said: “I don’t think anybody in their right mind in the White House would think about replacing Mr. Mueller.” We have since learned that Trump actually did try to remove Mueller, and Trump has again confirmed he is thinking about it.
- In January of 2018, we learned from the Daily Beast that another Republican senator who had originally sponsored another bill to protect Mueller, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), had “stopped actively pushing that effort.”
- Also in January, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: “I’m unaware of any effort, official effort, on the part of the White House to undermine the special counsel. And so I don’t feel any particular need to reach out to protect someone who seems to need no protection.”
- In March, after Trump began tweeting attacks on Mueller, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) issued a milquetoast statement saying nothing more than “Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.” When asked, Ryan’s office refused to comment directly on whether legislation to protect Mueller was needed.
- Around the same time in March, when McConnell’s staffers were asked for his position on the Mueller probe, they referred reporters back to the above January statement. People close to McConnell carefully leaked an explanation for his silence: As CNN put it, McConnell wanted to avoid jeopardizing his “good working relationship” with Trump.
- One day later in March, McConnell defended Mueller’s investigation. But then, when asked whether legislation was needed to protect the special counsel, McConnell added: “I don’t think that’s necessary. . . . I think there is widespread feeling, and the President’s lawyers obviously agree, that he ought to be allowed to finish the job.”
- In early April, the New York Times reported on the thinking about Mueller among Ryan and other top Republicans and their aides. The result was this extraordinary sentence: “Aides say privately that Republican leaders view the possibility of Mr. Mueller’s firing as too improbable to warrant hypothetical discussions.” To reiterate, we have since learned that Trump actually did try to remove Mueller, and Trump has again confirmed that he is thinking about it.
Now, it is perfectly possible Trump will not go through with any such effort. After all, he has repeatedly been talked out of taking this plunge, or has backed off when his actual efforts have failed. But Republicans are being asked to take steps in advance to forestall this possibility before it becomes a reality. And they don’t want to do this. What’s more, with very few exceptions, most have refrained from forcefully spelling out what even the theoretical consequences would be for Trump (such as impeachment hearings) if he did act — which the president has explicitly confirmed he just might do.
It is tempting to think Republicans still simply don’t believe this will ever happen. And perhaps they don’t. But they are refusing to take steps that would make the possibility substantially less likely. At what point do we get to conclude that Republicans, in declining to spell out the consequences they would levy in the face of such an action, may be signaling that there won’t be any? And whatever their intentions, does anyone doubt this is exactly the message Trump is likely to receive?
* WHAT SEARCH OF COHEN’S OFFICE MEANS: NBC News reports that Department of Justice policy requires FBI searches of this type — searching a lawyer’s office — to get very high level DOJ approval. And:
Because of the potential damage to legitimate attorney-client relationships caused by these mass seizures of records, U.S. Attorneys are trained to explore alternatives to these warrants when evidence is sought from a practicing attorney. One alternative would be a subpoena, which allows the attorney to search for and produce the documents. The fact that the FBI opted for a raid without notice suggests prosecutors believed less-intrusive measures might result in the destruction of evidence.
The destruction of evidence? Now why might that happen?
* WHAT SEARCH OF COHEN’S OFFICE MEANS, PART II: Randall D. Eliason, a professor at George Washington University Law School, explains:
A search warrant, unlike a grand jury subpoena, requires prosecutors to go before a federal judge to demonstrate probable cause that a crime has been committed and evidence of that crime can be found in the premises to be searched. Before approving a search of a lawyer’s office, a judge would want to be satisfied that there was some substance behind the prosecutors’ allegations.
In other words, after investigators detailed what they were looking for, a judge gave them the green light to go and find it.
* WHAT SEARCH OF COHEN’S OFFICE MEANS, PART III: Norm Eisen, Noah Bookbinder, and Conor Shaw speculate on the possible meaning of Cohen being probed for possible bank fraud and campaign finance violations:
Cohen apparently used a home equity credit line to borrow the $130,000 he paid Stormy Daniels for her silence just weeks before the 2016 election. If Cohen lied to obtain credit from a federally insured financial institution, that is a felony punishable by up to 30 years’ imprisonment. And because the payment was likely an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign, it could constitute a willful violation of campaign contribution limits, a separate felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
As they add, if Cohen is in big trouble, that’s significant, because he has “been at the center of Trump’s financial universe for decades” and probably could offer lots of information in a plea deal.
* FEUD WITH MUELLER IS ‘VISCERAL’ AND ‘PERSONAL’: Axios reports on the president’s state of mind after FBI agents raided the offices of Trump’s lawyer. Sources say the feud has turned “visceral” and “personal”:
Until now, when storms hit, Trump could turn to Hope Hicks to explain things to him, suggest wording, simmer him down. With her departure from the White House, we saw the president working out his fury in real time. . . . Close aides are recommending against firing Mueller. But that means little these days.
This is an especially good moment for Trump to be listening to his advisers less and less, and listening to Foxlandia more and more.
* SESSIONS IS ‘BENDING TO THE PRESIDENT”S WHIMS’: The New York Times reports on all the ways Attorney General Jeff Sessions is “bending” to Trump’s “whims” in response to his attacks. the latest: Trump blasted the Department of Justice for failing to produce documents fast enough in a congressional probe of the FBI’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Sessions responded by appointing someone to that task. While that’s not unusual, one expert told the Times that “it’s wildly unparalleled for Justice Department officials to do so in response to presidential tweets that criticize them.” Trump’s attacks on law enforcement are working.
* BANNON URGES TRUMP TO HOLD FIRM ON TARIFFS: Trump’s former adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, is urging Trump to see a trade war with China as a litmus test:
If Mr. Trump stands firm on $150 billion worth of tariffs he has threatened to impose on China, Mr. Bannon said, he will fulfill the promise of his nationalist presidential campaign. . . . “This is going to be a bumpy ride,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview . . . “The donor class and the politicians, from Paul Ryan to Mitch McConnell, have thrown in completely with the ‘we don’t want a trade war’ crowd,” he said. “My fear is ‘What does the money want to do?’”
Bannon, like Trump, has no concern about niggling details such as the fact that many working people could be hurt in a trade war. It’s all “populist” bluff and gesture.
* MICK MULVANEY FACES ELIZABETH WARREN: Bloomberg reports that Mick Mulvaney, who is gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Trump’s behalf, will this week face Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.Mass.), the creator of the CFPB, during a hearing:
Since Mulvaney took over in November, Warren has scrutinized everything from his hiring of GOP congressional aides to his decisions to drop enforcement actions. Mulvaney’s Thursday appearance before the Senate Banking Committee will be the Massachusetts Democrat’s first chance to spar with him publicly.
This will likely produce some viral moments that neatly illustrate what a sham Trump’s “economic populism” really is.
* AND TRUMP SUPPORTERS ARE SEETHING MAD: McClatchy reports that many high profile Trump supporters are furious that Trump hasn’t rewarded them for taking a chance in supporting him:
All across the country, the White House has passed over diehard Trump supporters for state-based federal appointments, instead handing those jobs to people who didn’t back Trump . . . In more than two dozen interviews with Trump supporters in 13 states . . . McClatchy found the Trump base seething over a White House that has sidelined people who worked to get this unconventional candidate elected.
So the people who were loyal to “Drain the Swamp” Trump didn’t get rewarded with the swamp’s spoils? So sad!