THE PLUM LINE:
Today, the Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to release a report scrutinizing the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email arrangement. I’m going to predict that President Trump is going to lie about this report — a lot — as part of his broader ongoing campaign to delegitimize special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into his campaign’s collusion with Russia’s sabotage of our election on his behalf.
But the nature of Trump’s lying in this particular case, I think, will command special attention, and it’s not clear that we in the news media are up to dealing with it. The most likely scenario is that Trump will tell a series of lies that aren’t merely dishonest in any conventional sense, but add up to a broader feat of gaslighting that is so spectacularly absurd and self-undermining that it will be hard to adequately convey to news consumers just how deeply saturated in bad faith it really is.
The report by the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is expected to be highly critical of the FBI’s treatment of the Clinton email investigation, with a focus on decisions made by former FBI director James B. Comey, his deputy Andrew McCabe and former attorney general Loretta Lynch.
Today the New York Times previews Horowitz’s findings. Trump has been alleging that the FBI is actually a hotbed of pro-Clinton, anti-Trump sentiment. In Trump’s telling, the FBI corruptly cleared Clinton of criminality and launched an illegitimate investigation into Trump. (Horowitz is looking separately at the FBI’s treatment of Trump, and those results will come later.) The Times notes that Horowitz is unlikely to find evidence backing up Trump’s narrative, but Trump is likely to try to spin it his way, anyway:
The inspector general is unlikely to claim a wide-ranging political conspiracy at the heart of the F.B.I. There is evidence that at least some agents on the Clinton investigation disliked Mr. Trump. But look for Mr. Trump to seize on aspects of the report that support him, and probably discard those that do not. …
When the Russia investigation began, Mr. Comey made a decision that ultimately proved fateful. Rather than assign the case to agents in the field, he gave it to the same team at headquarters that had investigated Mrs. Clinton. So, any criticism of decisions in the Clinton case — no matter how unrelated to the Russia investigation — will ultimately be used by Mr. Trump challenge the integrity of the team that began investigating his campaign.
To grasp just how deeply preposterous this is, we need to return to the fact that Trump justified his firing of Comey by citing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s memo claiming that Comey had erred by treating Clinton unfairly. That memo highlighted Comey’s decision to hold a news conference in July 2016 at which he criticized Clinton, even though he recommended against charges, as a violation of protocol.
We don’t know whether the IG report will criticize this, but it probably will: As ABC News recently reported, a draft version of the report does that, and it also finds fault with Comey’s decision to release information about “new” Clinton emails 11 days before the election.
And so, if the report does criticize those things, Trump will almost certainly seize on them by claiming they vindicate his original decision to fire Comey. (Trump needs to do this to play down the Russia probe as his motive, which he has admitted to on national television.) But even as Trump is pointing to the FBI’s unfair treatment of Clinton as vindication, he will simultaneously claim that the FBI was so corruptly in the tank for Clinton that it let her criminality slide.
What will the IG report tell us about Trump’s narrative of pro-Clinton corruption? Benjamin Wittes flags several things to watch for: Will the report find reason to believe the Clinton investigation was conducted in bad faith? Was it influenced by politics? And most important, was the fundamental underlying judgment not to prosecute Clinton in error? It is possible, of course, that the IG will find, say, additional texts among FBI agents that show anti-Trump bias, or that Lynch broke protocol by playing down the Clinton investigation or by meeting on the tarmac with Bill Clinton, two things Comey has claimed compromised the investigation. But it may find such things while also concluding that the FBI’s overall handling of the Clinton probe was legitimate and aboveboard, and that the decision not to prosecute was correct and made in good faith.
This, of course, would debunk one of Trump’s biggest storylines, and it seems like the most likely outcome. But if it does happen, Trump will seize on any one of those nuggets of misconduct suggested above to reiterate his claim that the whole probe corruptly exonerated Clinton. We will all get drawn down into a rabbit warren of arguments about this. But we should not lose sight of how cosmically absurd it will be if Trump makes this argument while also claiming vindication for his decision to fire Comey on the grounds that Clinton was mistreated.
* THE GOP BECOMES THE ‘CULT’ OF TRUMP: The Post reports on all the ways Republican lawmakers are falling behind Trump — in a “cultish” way, says Sen. Bob Corker — and the broader impact that this is having:
The president has expanded his power throughout the Republican political firmament in an unexpectedly broad way … His hotel … has become the requisite gathering place for Republican groups … Driving it all has been the sentiment of Republican voters, who have swiftly adopted the president’s issue positions and looked the other way at a progression of missteps and conflicts that would have doomed prior presidents. … And they have rained down punishment on those who disagree with Trump.
Trump appears to be hauling in a lot of money from those Republicans who are showing their loyalty by staging events at his hotel, too.
* NORTH KOREAN MEDIA HAILS MEETING WITH TRUMP: The New York Times reports on how the state-run media in North Korea is portraying Kim Jong Un’s grand agreement with Trump:
North Korea’s state-controlled news media described a step-by-step process to dismantle its nuclear weapons, with the United States rewarding it at each stage, something Mr. Trump has seemed to reject in the past. … The state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun plastered the pages of its Wednesday edition with color photographs of Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump talking, walking and smiling, apparently as equals.
Meanwhile, Trump’s own state media are portraying this, in different ways, as an equally grand triumph for Trump that has already succeeded.
* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT ANTI-OBAMACARE LAWSUIT: The Hill reports that some Republicans are worried about the political fallout from the latest conservative lawsuit designed to gut Obamacare by targeting preexisting conditions:
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell noted that the Trump administration’s move to argue against the ObamaCare measure in court could put vulnerable Republican incumbents at risk. … “One of the top issues that fires up Democrats is health care, and obviously pre-existing conditions is popular with independents,” the GOP strategist [said]. “It may not be the best time to bring this up.”
Indeed, The Hill notes that Mitch McConnell is refusing to endorse this lawsuit, which is a key tell. And this point about independents and protections for preexisting conditions is right.
* EVANGELICALS BLAST FAMILY SEPARATIONS: ABC News reports that evangelical leaders are sharply criticizing the Trump “zero tolerance” border crackdown that is resulting in cruel family separations:
The Reverend Franklin Graham … told the Christian Broadcasting Network, the new enforcement policy was “disgraceful.” … Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, signed on to a letter with others conservative Christian leaders [saying] that any blanket policy or practice by the administration that led to separated families could be “devastating,” “long-lasting,” and is “of utmost concern.”
It would be really interesting to know whether rank-and-file evangelicals who backed Trump are similarly concerned.
* IT’S RIGHT TO DOUBT TRUMP: With some arguing critics of Trump on North Korea are wrongly denigrating the very idea of diplomacy, E.J. Dionne Jr. points out that there are many legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Trump’s self-declared achievement:
He made real concessions to North Korea — beginning with the legitimacy that the Singapore extravaganza conferred on Kim and Trump’s decision to call off joint military exercises with South Korea — without winning anything concrete in return. … upon returning home, Trump tweeted that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” When the most optimistic scenario is that the president doesn’t really believe what he’s tweeting, we have ample reason to doubt his competence and his motivation.
Exactly. As Sen. Chris Murphy aptly put it, “We’re not against diplomacy. We’re just against bad diplomacy.” And it is fine to say so.
* WHITE HOUSE SCRAMBLES TO FILL JOBS: Politico reports that the White House is having so much trouble filling jobs that it is recruiting at a conservative job fair, with a flier that says: “Interested in a job at the White House?” And:
The Trump White House … has had difficulty bringing new people in as staffers have resigned amid ongoing chaos and a crackdown on security clearances – or … been fired as part of a purge of people accused of leaking information to reporters. The departures have hollowed out the ranks of lower-level staffers, with dozens departing from various policy offices as well as the press and communications shops.
And to think, we’re less than two years into Trump’s first term.
* AND TRUMP PRAISES A DICTATOR: NBC’s First Read transcribes this amazing exchange between Trump and Fox News’s Bret Baier:
BAIER: He is a killer.
TRUMP: He’s a tough guy. When you take over a country, a tough country, tough people — and you take it over from your father — I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 who could do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.
BAIER: But he’s still done some really bad things.
TRUMP: Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.
It’s hard to miss the contrast between this and Trump’s criticism of leaders like Justin Trudeau as “weak,” isn’t it?