The move by the Justice Department — which was undertaken at the order of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — is meant to temporarily mollify Trump in the face of what is a dramatic escalation of his ongoing effort to delegitimize special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Here are three big takeaways:
Nothing will ever be enough. The idea that the Trump campaign was improperly “infiltrated or surveilled” is a reference to the “FBI informant” that Trump and his allies have railed about lately, claiming the FBI “spied” on his campaign. Trump’s allies in Congress have been demanding that the Justice Department release all documents related to this informant, a longtime intelligence source. The department has refused, on the grounds that so doing would compromise ongoing intelligence operations and put lives at risk.
We now know a lot more about this informant. The Post and the New York Times have both confirmed that he is a retired American professor and that he did in fact contact several Trump advisers during the campaign to gather information from them. But he was sent to do this after the FBI had obtained evidence that those advisers had questionable contacts involving Russia during the campaign. The FBI determined that Trump adviser George Papadopoulos had been told that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” In other words, this “spying” was actually done in concert with what appears to be a legitimate counterintelligence investigation.
We don’t know what the IG’s probe will find. But here’s the point: Even if it confirms that the investigation was by the books, as is likely, it won’t matter. The position of Trump and his allies is that the investigation is inherently illegitimate to its core, so no fact-based examination of it can ever possibly change this. If the IG doesn’t conclude what Trump and his allies want him to conclude, they will simply scream “Coverup!” and move on to the next set of lies about the probe.
The system is probably holding — for now, anyway. Some are worrying that the Justice Department’s willingness to initiate the IG probe in response to pressure from Trump is a sign that the system is failing. I think this may be premature. A lot will turn on Trump’s next moves. Will he dismiss the IG examination as insufficient and demand a full-fledged Justice Department investigation into the FBI’s conduct of the Russia probe? Or will he be temporarily mollified by the IG’s involvement?
If Trump opts for the latter, it’s possible to see an endgame here that isn’t too alarming. Yes, Rosenstein’s cave sets a terrible precedent in terms of eroding law enforcement’s independence from presidential pressure, by validating a demand from Trump that is nakedly political and rooted in a charge of law enforcement corruption that is entirely baseless. But in the end, the IG could find that the investigation was not politicized, reaffirming its legitimacy. As noted above, Trump will scream that this is a coverup. But his actions will matter more at that point, and if he does nothing, the Mueller probe may end up continuing until it finds the full truth, and the system will basically be holding. With a caveat:
The GOP’s enabling of Trump could get even worse. There are several possibilities here. The first is that Trump is not satisfied with the IG move and orders a full Justice Department investigation of the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe. This could lead to resignations by Rosenstein and possibly FBI Director Christopher Wray. “If Trump says, ‘I’m ordering the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation,’ that’s the moment when people have to think about resigning,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me today.
Or, alternatively, if Trump allows the IG probe to proceed and it doesn’t find what Trump wants it to, Trump may take action at that point, by firing Rosenstein or trying to remove Mueller. This is particularly awful to contemplate, as it would come in defiance of the IG’s fact-based validation of the Russia investigation. In both of these scenarios, pressure would mount on congressional Republicans to act, by, say, legislatively protecting the Mueller probe or its findings, or by beginning an impeachment inquiry.
As Vladeck put it to me, the moment at which Trump genuinely “subverts DOJ processes” will create “a really important inflection point for congressional Republicans.” There isn’t any particularly good reason to assume that Republicans would do the right thing, and at that point, we would be in a very dark place. But it really may not come to that.
* TRUMP AIDES WORRY ABOUT NORTH KOREA: The New York Times reports that even Trump’s own aides worry that he’s botching the public relations strategy:
Mr. Trump’s aides have grown concerned that the president … has signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much. … Moreover, Mr. Trump’s decision this month to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal raises the stakes for the North Korea negotiation. If he emerges with anything less than what President Barack Obama got … it will be hard for Mr. Trump to convince anyone other than his base that the negotiation was a success.
Getting less than what Obama got would be the ultimate humiliation, to be sure, but Trump will proclaim himself history’s greatest diplomatic deal-maker no matter what happens.
* PAUL RYAN IS LOSING CONTROL: ABC News points out that Paul Ryan is losing control of the House GOP caucus on multiple fronts:
GOP disagreements on immigration sank the food stamps and farm bill on Friday. Conservatives, who want a tougher immigration bill brought up for a vote, delivered [Ryan] a shocking defeat … moderate Republicans are poised to further upend leadership’s plans, as they compile signatures to allow a House vote to legalize Dreamers’ status … Trump … continues to muse about another possible government shutdown if Congress doesn’t approve his border wall before the election.
It’s hard to imagine a shutdown actually happening before the election, but Trump surely isn’t helping Republicans by continuing to talk about one.
* DEMOCRATS WILL RUN AGAINST TRUMP CORRUPTION: The Post reports that top Democrats will today roll out a new plan to make the midterm elections all about corruption by Trump and top administration officials:
The new Democratic focus on corruption as a campaign message marks a return to a formula that helped put Democrats into the House majority in the 2006 midterm elections … Democrats … are prepared to connect the corruption allegations to a Republican governing agenda that has delivered outsize tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and dismantled financial and environmental regulations that aimed to protect average taxpayers.
People always forget the importance of corruption to the Democrats’ successful 2006 flipping of Congress, and now the corruption case is as strong as ever.
* RUDY GIULIANI LAYS GROUNDWORK TO AVOID MUELLER INTERVIEW: Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani tells the Wall Street Journal that Trump might not do an interview unless more is learned about the FBI informant who talked to Trump campaign officials:
Giuliani’s comments suggest the Trump legal team is seeking leverage in the latest rounds of monthslong negotiations with Mr. Mueller about the terms under which the president would testify. “What we intend to do is premise it on, ‘If you want an interview, we need an answer to this,’ ” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview.
* IS CHINA WINNING TRADE WAR? Over the weekend, the White House put Trump’s tariffs against China on hold for now, in exchange for China agreeing to buy more U.S. products. Heather Long points out that China appears to be gaining the upper hand:
Chinese factories and cities need more energy, and its people want more meat. It’s no surprise then that China said it was interested in buying more U.S. energy and agricultural products. … it was almost certain that the Chinese were going to buy more of that stuff anyway. … so far, the Chinese are pitching Trump a “deal” that doesn’t alter much on their end.
Meanwhile, the Chinese made no real commitments to reduce their taking of intellectual property. And even some Trump allies are saying he blinked.
* WOMEN ARE RESHAPING DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Politico reports that women’s victories in House Democratic primaries, and the increasing identification with the party among female voters, herald a long term shift:
The prospect of a record number of female candidates on the November ballot — and running for president in 2020 — has Democratic leaders leaning into increasingly explicit, gender-based appeals and focusing renewed attention on education, health care, sexual harassment and other issues perceived as critical to women. … The party itself is casting women as a focal point … ahead of a presidential primary season in which women are expected to prove critical — as volunteers, donors and most important, as a bulk of voters.
And of course, Trump’s ongoing alienation of female voters could get worse — potentially a lot worse — helping to fuel this trend.
* AND THE REAL INTENT OF TRUMP’S ‘ANIMALS’ COMMENT: Trump is claiming the media distorted his “animals” comment, which he says was only about MS-13 members. E.J. Dionne Jr. unmasks Trump’s game:
Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project. … Throughout his presidential campaign and since, Trump has regularly blended talk about all immigrants with specific attacks on immigrants who committed serious crimes … he has spent years creating rhetorical links between the foreign-born as a whole (especially those here illegally) and the bloodshed perpetrated by the few.
This is the real “context” we should appeal to in evaluating Trump’s comments. And every journalist who has claimed Trump’s comments were misrepresented is fully aware of this context.