THE MORNING PLUM:
You know it’s gotten bad when the president is required to do damage control for his lawyer, but that’s exactly what happened this morning, when Donald Trump took to Twitter to explain himself, after Rudolph W. Giuliani admitted on Fox News that Trump repaid $130,000 in hush money to Stormy Daniels. In suspiciously non-capitalized prose, Trump (or his ghost-tweeter) basically confirmed the story and said it was no biggie.
But Giuliani’s other admission — delivered during his interview with Sean Hannity on Wednesday night — may be more important and damning. Giuliani conceded in an offhand way that Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey because Comey failed to do Trump’s bidding and publicly declare that Trump was not under investigation. Here’s what Giuliani said:
“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani said. “He’s entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that, and he couldn’t get that. So he fired him, and he said, ‘I’m free of this guy.'”
In saying this, Giuliani appears to have thought that he was exonerating Trump. Giuliani was saying Trump didn’t fire Comey to obstruct the investigation into Trump campaign collusion with Russian sabotage of our election, but rather because Comey didn’t publicly clear him, which Giuliani believes Trump was “entitled to.”
But this undercuts the leading public rationale that Trump offered for firing Comey. The White House has cited Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation as the fake pretext for the firing. But now Trump’s own lawyer has confirmed on national television that the rationale was directly related to the Russia investigation.
“It seems that Giuliani is trying to suggest that Trump did not obstruct justice when he fired Comey,” Barbara McQuade, a former prosecutor and current law professor at the University of Michigan, told me. “But in fact he may just be building the case against him. Even demanding that Comey make a public statement that Trump is not under investigation would itself potentially be obstruction of justice.” McQuade added that insisting on such a public statement constitutes “interfering in the investigation.”
Here’s a key bit of context showing why Giuliani’s admission could be important: Remember that Trump himself reportedly made this same demand of Comey — and that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III appears to be examining that demand as part of his effort to determine whether Trump obstructed justice.
After Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the probe in March of 2017, Trump told Comey in a March 30 phone call that he wanted Comey to confirm he was not personally under investigation, to publicly “lift the cloud” that the probe had cast over his presidency, according to Comey’s memos. Comey detailed in the memos that he didn’t want to do this, because the status of the probe could change (as it ultimately did), and he wanted to avoid having to publicly confirm such a change later. Comey took this exchange seriously enough to report it to his superiors at the Justice Department.
What’s more, we know that a short time later, Trump personally asked two other top intelligence officials to publicly confirm what Comey would not. As The Post reported, they both refused the request, which they deemed “inappropriate.” Trump subsequently went further, prodding them to directly intervene with Comey to curtail the investigation, which they also refused to do.
We also know that Mueller is looking at all of this conduct. To establish obstruction, Mueller needs to show that in trying to hamstring or derail the probe, Trump acted with “corrupt intent,” say, to protect himself and his top officials from scrutiny. The leaked questions from Mueller show that he wants to ask Trump about that very same March 30 call with Comey in which he seems to have demanded that Comey publicly exonerate him. Mueller wants to probe Trump’s state of mind about all of this, including whether Comey’s public confirmation of the investigation — which angered Trump — helped precipitate Comey’s firing.
Giuliani has now publicly confirmed that all that did indeed figure into Trump’s rationale. And Mueller’s team may take an interest in this, McQuade told me: “This will cause them to review what they’ve done already and will inform their questions going forward.”
To be clear, it still remains very unlikely that Mueller will try to indict Trump for obstruction of justice. But Mueller is expected to produce a report on the obstruction question, and his findings on it may be made public in some form. Whether or not Trump can be held criminally liable for obstruction, Mueller may end up documenting a pattern of very serious misconduct, which could shed new light on just how far Trump went to shield himself and his cronies from accountability, something that could have serious implications for our politics and for our efforts to restore the integrity of the rule of law amid Trump’s nonstop degradation of it.
Giuliani has inadvertently lent more salience to this whole line of inquiry.
* TRUMP ADMITS TO STORMY PAYMENT: In several tweets today, Trump confirmed that he repaid his lawyer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 in hush money to Stormy Daniels:
Trump stressed that no campaign funds were used to reimburse Cohen, calling it a “private agreement.” “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction,” Trump wrote.
This is meant to exonerate Cohen from a campaign finance violation, but it also raises the question of whether Trump knew about the payment at the time it was made.
* RUDY: TRUMP WAS SLOW TO REPAY COHEN: Giuliani talked to BuzzFeed after the Fox News fiasco:
In a conversation with BuzzFeed News, Giuliani later said that Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, “had complained to some people” after the 2016 election that he’d not been fully paid by Trump. At some point — Giuliani said he did not know when or where specifically — Cohen met with Trump and told him of his complaint.
Giuliani added that Trump subsequently agreed to pay Cohen $35,000 a month. The humiliation is complete.
* TRUMP PREPARES FOR WAR WITH MUELLER: The Post reports that Ty Cobb’s exit from Trump’s legal team signals a new, much more aggressive posture towards the special counsel, including perhaps dodging a sit-down interview:
Trump … has increasingly complained in recent weeks that he needed to consider all options for fighting Mueller and not simply agree to an interview … other members of the legal team share Trump’s view that they should take a more confrontational approach with the special counsel, including lawyer Jay Sekulow, who has urged the group to consider the pros and cons of fighting a subpoena, according to people familiar with his advice.
As we’ve noted, it’s likely that Trump believes the country is with him on this, when it isn’t, which makes the situation all the more dangerous.
* GOP PANICS ABOUT SENATE SEAT: With Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee refusing to give a full-throated endorsement to GOP candidate Marsha Blackburn while praising Dem Phil Bredesen, Politico reports that Republicans are in panic mode:
The drama between Blackburn and Corker, combined with Bredesen’s crossover appeal, hint at a potential train wreck … that could swing the narrowly divided Senate to Democrats. Recent public and private polls show Bredesen leading Blackburn … Republicans … worry that Corker’s Bredesen-friendly comments amount to a tacit permission for pragmatic-minded GOP voters to cross the aisle.
As we keep pointing out, if Dems can win the Tennessee seat, the path to a Dem majority (via Nevada and/or Arizona) becomes a lot more plausible.
* OBAMACARE BECOMES WEAPON FOR DEMS: The New York Times reports that the tables have turned, and Democrats are using the Republicans’ failed repeal vote as a weapon against them in multiple House races:
Far from the liability that the Affordable Care Act has been in past elections, Democrats believe health care will be a key advantage heading into this fall’s midterm elections. … Democrats accuse the Trump administration and congressional Republicans of sabotaging the health law’s insurance marketplaces through actions such as ending the [mandate]. And in the weeks before this fall’s elections, consumers are expected to learn of another wave of premium increases.
That hike will likely be blamed on Republicans, since they run the place. Imagine if Republicans lose the House partly over health care after failing to realize their repeal dream.
* DEMS LAUNCH NEW EFFORT TO WIN BACK COURTS: Carl Hulse reports that Democrats are launching a group called Demand Justice that will raise money to sustain a campaign for the judiciary that will be sustained and ongoing:
The organization … [will] make the argument that … the federal courts … are the final authority on issues important to progressives such as immigration, abortion, gay rights, social policy, the environment and corporate power, to name a few. … [People] behind the new group acknowledge that conservatives have been much more effective at turning the courts into a rallying point for their voters.
The genius of the theft of the Supreme Court seat was that it energized conservative voters in the 2016 election, because they knew winning was key to pulling off the heist.
* DEMS LAUNCH GUN ADS AIMED AT SUBURBANITES: NBC News reports that the gun regulation group run by Gabrielle Giffords is launching ads going after Republicans in the Nevada Senate race and multiple House races. Here’s the thinking:
The Nevada Senate race and all of the House races are among the most competitive in the country, and all figure to be influenced heavily by suburban swing voters. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the NRA’s popularity with key groups took a hit after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February, including among white married women, seniors and more moderate Republicans.
If Democrats can really use this issue to further energize college-educated, white, suburbanite swing voters, especially women, it will suggest the cultural shift on this issue is enduring.
* MEDIA’S ASYMMETRIC TREATMENT OF THE PARTIES: Paul Krugman points out that pundits constantly complain that Democrats don’t have any new ideas, yet weirdly don’t make this complaint about Republicans:
Somehow it’s always Democrats who get this kind of criticism, even though every prominent Republican for the past three decades has espoused the same three bad ideas: tax cuts for the rich, slashed benefits for the poor, and more pollution. Paul Ryan 2010 was basically Newt Gingrich 1995 with a lower BMI, yet he got praised endlessly as an innovative thinker.
One rendition of this is the constant claim that Dems are offering only “I’m not Trump,” which is completely out of touch with the reality of how many Dem campaigns are actually being run.