This comes after the news broke over the weekend that a memo from Trump’s lawyers to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III asserted that Trump possesses the power to pardon people implicated in the Russia probe, and also that as “chief law enforcement officer,” Trump “could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry.” The memo also argued that Trump does not need to submit to a subpoena to sit for an interview with Mueller.
But, while all of these moves have stirred great concern that Trump is preparing to exercise near-dictatorial powers on his own behalf, they are better seen as a window into how weak and precarious Trump’s position — politically, if not legally — has become.
To see why, look at a specific point in the memo: the striking concession by Trump’s lawyers that he did, in fact, dictate that initial statement for his son Donald Trump Jr., which falsified the real rationale for the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians. As the memo puts it, “the president dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times.”
As you’ll recall, the initial statement put out by Don Jr. claimed the meeting was about Russian adoptions. It was only after Times reporters obtained his emails showing that he anticipated the meeting would yield dirt on Hillary Clinton furnished by Russia that he was somewhat more forthcoming.
The admission by Trump’s lawyers that he “dictated” the false statement (no, it is not “accurate”) is important, because it comes after Trump’s lawyers and White House officials repeatedly denied in various forms that the president had played such a hands-on role. The question is, why did Trump’s lawyers suddenly admit this?
The most plausible explanation for the concession actually indicates the weakness of Trump’s position. Remember the backstory here: The Times also reported that Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for Trump’s legal team, resigned over Trump’s role in this statement. Corallo was preparing to tell Mueller that in a private conference call with Trump himself, his communications director Hope Hicks had said Donald Trump Jr.’s emails “will never get out,” leaving him concerned that Donald Trump’s team was engaged in a coverup. Corallo has certainly talked to Mueller about this episode, as have others involved in it.
Jed Shugerman, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, told me that this concession by Trump’s lawyers likely meant they had no choice — Mueller has established exactly what happened. They are conceding this point as part of an effort to justify not sitting for an interview — they’re claiming Trump already admits he dictated this statement, so Mueller doesn’t need to ask about it.
“The admission is so surprising that it suggests they may be trying to avoid a subpoena by basically conceding a key factual point,” Shugerman said. “They see a live interview with Mueller’s team as more dangerous than the damage from admitting that Trump dictated this statement.”
But as former White House counsel Bob Bauer added to me, their concession of Trump’s role in dictating the statement actually strengthens the rationale for insisting on further questioning. “This raises all sorts of questions as to why he did it,” Bauer told me. “What did you know at the time you wrote it? Who did you know it from? And why did you write something we now know wasn’t true? The moment that they concede that they lied about [Trump’s role], the argument for the interview is strengthened, not weakened.”
A big unknown
One big unknown is whether Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting before it happened. Just before that meeting, Donald Trump Jr. was in touch with someone at a blocked number. It’s hard to know exactly what happened — see Philip Bump’s dissection of the known facts — but we do know Trump himself had a blocked number.
Bauer points out that Mueller will certainly ask about all this, and Trump’s dictating of the false statement indicates a broader desire to prevent this full set of facts from coming out. “The dictating of the false statement is [part of] an ongoing effort to cover up something,” Bauer said. Given that Trump was “active in writing the cover up,” Bauer continued, further questioning of him will center on “what Trump knew and when he knew it.”
It’s hard to predict the legal relevance of all this. But Mueller is set to produce a detailed report on Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation. Given how much we already know about what Trump did in that regard — and given that Mueller knows a lot more — Trump’s interview with Mueller promises to be a minefield, and any effort to evade such an interview would also be very dicey.
In political terms, the fact that Trump’s lawyers had to concede to such an important episode — one in which the president misled the country to cover up his son’s effort to conspire with a foreign power’s corruption of our democracy on his behalf — shows what a perilous position he’s in.
* REPUBLICANS HEAD FOR SHOWDOWN ON ‘DREAMERS’: Politico reports that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will make one more desperate push to forge a compromise protecting “dreamers,” but it may fail, and if so, moderate Republicans will succeed in getting a “discharge petition”:
… the weekslong effort to strike a compromise to avoid the vote has fallen short. … GOP leaders have scheduled a two-hour immigration meeting on Thursday to try again to break the impasse. Ryan will make a final push to corral the conference behind an immigration plan. Moderates have designated that day, June 7, as a soft deadline for securing 218 signatures … Currently, they’re five signatures away and expected to easily clear that threshold.
This would force a House vote legalizing the dreamers in exchange for border security money, and it would pass with mostly Democrats. If the Senate follows, a raging Trump will have to veto it.
* REPUBLICANS FEEL BULLISH ABOUT SENATE: The New York Times reports on a multitude of recent developments that have Republicans feeling better about holding their Senate majority:
Mr. Trump is enjoying a modest increase in his approval ratings this year and … is attacking Democrats rather than inciting the internecine feuds that could depress Republican turnout. The economy continues to grow … [Republicans] have averted disaster in the West Virginia primary, successfully recruited their preferred candidates in North Dakota and Florida, and watched a renegade Republican challenger wane in one of Mississippi’s two Senate races.
Of course, as the piece also notes, Republicans were always favored to keep their majority, since the map is awful for Democrats, and even some Republicans expect Dem gains.
* DEMS ON EDGE ABOUT CALIFORNIA: Tomorrow’s Democratic primaries in California carry extremely high stakes for the party, and McClatchy reports that Dems are “on edge” about them:
… thanks to California’s open primary system — in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party — Democrats could end up shut out in three of the most competitive congressional districts, seriously denting the party’s chances of taking back control of the House. … The crowded fields of candidates, huge amount of money flowing into these contests and lack of recent polling all add up to a tremendous level of uncertainty … less than a week before primary day.
The three key districts are the 39th, 48th and 49th — and if Dems advance to the general election in them, which remains possible, the party will have averted disaster.
* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT TRUMP’S TRADE WAR: The Associated Press reports that Senate Republicans are worried that Trump’s trade war could escalate, and they just might act:
Republicans will be making the case to the administration that the tariffs could dampen the economic gains from the GOP tax cuts and sour the mood among voters … Some Republicans are also hoping Trump simply changes his mind and doesn’t follow through with it. But aides said others may be signing on to a bill … that would subject all trade actions by the executive branch, including tariffs, to congressional approval.
Let’s face it — blindly hoping that Trump changes his mind is the course of action most Republicans are likely to opt for.
* TRADE WAR COULD ROIL MIDTERMS: CNN reports that the looming Trump trade war could give Dems a weapon against some Republicans in the midterm elections:
In border states that are heavily dependent on international trade and rural states with agriculture exports, however, Democrats are arguing that the tariffs … will damage the local economy. … In North Dakota, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp faces a tough re-election fight this fall, the GOP’s Senate candidate, Rep. Kevin Cramer, finds himself under attack … for dismissing concerns over Trump’s tariffs.
And keep in mind, that’s a state Trump carried by 35 points. If Trump’s trade policies are a vulnerability for Republicans there…
* WHAT THAT MEMO TO MUELLER MEANS: Trump’s lawyers wrote a memo to Mueller claiming Trump has the power to terminate any investigation for any reason. Former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman points out:
If the president had the authority to use his constitutional powers for any reason … it would follow that he could accept a bribe for doing an official act, or … extend a pardon to keep a witness from testifying. … Under Mr. Trump’s view, Nixon would not have been guilty of obstruction for ordering the F.B.I. to stand down on the investigation of the Watergate burglars or paying off the defendants to keep them quiet.
That would seem to suggest a good question for the president’s defenders: Do you believe Nixon did not commit obstruction of justice?
* AND PROGRESSIVE POLICY IS POPULAR: A useful reminder from E.J. Dionne Jr.:
On a long list of issues related to economic justice and government’s role in fostering a more decent society, substantial majorities take broadly progressive positions. … A Pew Research survey last year found 60 percent saying that the federal government was responsible for ensuring health care for all Americans … the percentages supporting background checks for gun purchases have ranged from the low 80s to the high 90s. And a March Gallup survey found that 62 percent of Americans saw government as doing “too little” to protect the environment.
And don’t forget that majorities favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; higher taxes on the wealthy; stiffer oversight on Wall Street; and a higher minimum wage.