THE MORNING PLUM:
There are two Mueller probes. There’s the one that exists in the Fox News-addled mind of President Trump and his supporters, which features dark conspiracy-mongering about a “Deep State coup” against Trump; out-of-control federal agents jackbooting poor, hapless Trump allies; and, of course, the corrupt failure to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Then there’s the one that exists in most mainstream news accounts, which features a team of investigators mostly going by the book, never leaking, methodically following the facts, albeit very aggressively, wherever they will lead.
The gaping disconnect between these two Mueller probes is driven home by two new pieces: one from New York magazine, which reports alarming new details about Trump’s addiction to Fox News and how that has shaped his perception of the Mueller investigation; and one from The Post, which paints a detailed picture of how the probe has actually been operating day in and day out.
The New York magazine piece reports that former White House advisers Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus sought to deliberately drive Trump deeper into the Fox News bubble, because he was getting overly agitated by criticism on MSNBC and CNN. They did this by talking up Fox’s high ratings and importance to Trump’s base until Trump’s television diet became, as one former official put it, “mainly a complete dosage of Fox.”
But this has created its own alarming problems, officials now say. Fox gets Trump riled up about topics that weren’t supposed to be on that day’s agenda, forcing White House staff to scramble to refocus. And Trump’s addiction to Sean Hannity — who has become a kind of walking security blanket for the president — is having a deep impression on his view of the Mueller investigation:
Regardless of the news of the day, the overarching narrative of the show is the political persecution of Trump, and by extension of Hannity and Hannity’s viewers, at the hands of the so-called deep state and the Democratic Party, and the corrupt mainstream media, a wholly owned subsidiary of both. Everything comes back to … Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, a phony, petty diversion from what should be the real focus: prosecuting Hillary Clinton.
Now over to The Post’s new piece. The big takeaway is that the Mueller probe, as the piece puts it, is “secretive and methodical,” a “steaming locomotive” that is racking up indictments and guilty pleas — the real action in the background, even as Hannity hallucinates about the Deep State and Rudy Giuliani rails about Mueller’s “stormtroopers” while pummeling himself about the face with seemingly endless rake-stepping. Note this:
“The biggest challenge for the White House is that the special counsel is conducting an investigation properly, which is not commenting publicly, only making known its activities by virtue of bringing cases or executing legal process in a manner that is publicly observable,” said Jacob S. Frenkel, who worked in the independent counsel’s office in the late 1990s.
This is indeed the big challenge for the White House — in more ways than one. The general buttoned-down nature of the investigation, and the lack of leaks and other visible antics, have probably made it harder for Trump and his allies to discredit the probe, which is likely why large majorities — including independents — support the investigation of both collusion and of Trump’s finances (even if large majorities of Republicans still think it’s a witch hunt).
The other big challenge this creates for Trump and his outside allies is that it’s impossible to know what Mueller has discovered. He is investigating multiple actions by Trump that could constitute obstruction of justice. The Post also reports that the Mueller team is probing the relationship between former Trump confidant Roger Stone and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which leaked the hacked Democratic Party emails.
On top of that, the Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand reports that Mueller’s agents “allegedly detained a lawyer with ties to Russia who is closely associated with Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who claimed during the election that Russia had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton.” (This claim was made to former Trump aide George Papadopoulos, whose activities formed the real genesis of the Mueller probe, despite #Foxlandia’s founding myth to the contrary.) As Bertrand notes, this highlights Mueller’s ongoing interest in “whether the campaign knew in advance that Russia planned to interfere in the election.”
All of this confirms once again — as did the leaked Mueller questions — that it is utter folly to assume we have any idea of the extent of what Mueller has established on whether there was a Russia-Trump campaign conspiracy to sabotage our democracy, or, for that matter, on anything else. Yet the gap between the real Mueller probe and the one that exists in #Foxlandia — and, as a result, in Trump’s head — has never been wider.
* TRUMP TARIFFS CREATE CHAOS: The New York Times reports that thousands of companies have deluged the Commerce Department with requests for exemptions from Trump’s tariffs:
[The tariffs] have created a chaotic, time-consuming process and provoked deep uncertainty among executives, who are delaying investment, expansion and hiring as a result. The disarray stems from the sheer vastness of the administration’s attempt to reshape the rules of global trade in a matter of months, as it threatens a trade war with China and races to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Meanwhile, some companies tell the Times that the tariffs could actually lead to job cuts.
* HOW COHEN GOT COMPANIES TO PAY UP: The Wall Street Journal has a deep dive into how Michael Cohen got companies to hand him big checks in exchange for insight into the new president’s thinking:
Mr. Cohen’s pitch was blunt. He would tell prospective clients — large corporations worried about their lack of connections to President Donald Trump’s administration — that he didn’t know who was advising them, but that the companies “should fire them all,” a person familiar with Mr. Cohen’s approach said. “I have the best relationship with the president on the outside, and you need to hire me,” Mr. Cohen told them, according to this person.
The Journal story reports that Cohen actually felt shut out of the new administration, but it’s still unknown how much Trump knew about what Cohen was doing, and that’s key.
* THE ROAD TO A DEMOCRATIC HOUSE MAJORITY: Politico reports on how the recent redistricting of Pennsylvania, along with retirements and resignations, has made Pennsylvania the epicenter of the battle for the House:
The upshot of all that chaos: a wider playing field for Democrats … with the opportunity to gain as many as five districts in November. That’s a significant chunk of the 23 seats Democrats must net to take back the House. .. But the flip side to the turmoil has been an unusually raucous set of primaries, [which] could yield weak or wounded candidates in the general election.
And so, a lot turns on what happens in the coming Democratic primaries, but as one Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania puts it: “Many of these races will be indicators as to whether the House flips.”
* DEMOCRATS EMBRACE CENTRIST CANDIDATES: Alan Blinder and Alex Burns report that in many House races across the country, national Democrats are embracing centrists closer to the middle, rather than their left challengers:
In a string of important races across the country, national Democrats have been embracing recruits near the political center, hoping they will give the party the chance to compete in states like Utah and Kansas where a liberal Democrat might stand little chance of winning. … Democratic voters have largely been going along in the primaries held so far in these districts, which are often in rural areas.
The fact that Democratic voters are also choosing these candidates must be deeply perplexing to pundits who love to argue that the parties are equivalently divided.
* DEMOCRATS ARE MOVING LEFT ON THE ECONOMY: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a good column explaining what’s really going on with the Democratic Party’s embrace of increasingly progressive economic ideas:
Here’s the reality: The economic crash of 2008 and Trump’s success among blue-collar voters in parts of the country that have fallen behind moved moderates as well as liberals alike toward a tougher critique of how the American economy is working. There is nothing ultra-left about this. It is just a reckoning with what is happening to the lives and livelihoods of millions of our fellow Americans.
The centrist Democrats running in tougher areas may not be fully embracing this emerging progressive agenda, but generally, the party is moving toward it as a set of aspirational goals.
* WHY THIS WHITE HOUSE LEAKS SO MUCH: Jonathan Swan talks to White House insiders about why there’s so much leaking, and this, from one official, seems like a notable explanation:
“You have to realize that working here is kind of like being in a never-ending ‘Mexican Standoff.’ Everyone has guns (leaks) pointed at each other and it’s only a matter of time before someone shoots. There’s rarely a peaceful conclusion so you might as well shoot first.”
And, as one former official put it: “Bad managers almost always breed an unhappy workplace, which ultimately results in pervasive leaking.” #FineTunedMachine
* AND WHITE HOUSE ISN’T THAT BOTHERED BY McCAIN INSULT: White House aide Kelly Sadler privately joked that John McCain’s opposition to Trump’s CIA chief nominee doesn’t matter “because he’s dying anyway.” CNN reports on Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s internal response:
Despite publicly refusing to criticize the remark, Sanders told the press staff that Sadler’s comment was inappropriate, according to several sources familiar with the meeting. During the dressing down, Sanders focused more on how the remark was leaked apparently in an attempt to target Sadler with a damaging story, one of the sources told CNN.
This White House really does have its priorities straight, doesn’t it?