Opinion writer

Michael S. Schmidt’s report in the New York Times contains so many blockbusters that it’s hard to know where to begin. Here are the most critical claims:

  • Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has evidence, including a memo from former chief of staff Reince Priebus, confirming at least some of the allegations that former FBI director James B. Comey made and documented in contemporaneous memos. For instance, Priebus documents President Trump’s attempt to get Comey to publicly clear him, something Comey recounted at the time.
  • The original draft of the letter firing Comey reportedly contained an introductory statement claiming that the Russia investigation was “fabricated and politically motivated.” The president’s aides prevailed upon him not to send it, but Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein (cleverly) took an original copy of the letter. He nevertheless drafted a memo setting out entirely different grounds for firing Comey (i.e. Comey’s handing of the Hillary Clinton emails and the false allegation that FBI morale was low).
  • Trump was frantic to keep Attorney General Jeff Sessions in place to protect him in the Russia probe, dispatched the White House counsel to lean on Sessions not to recuse himself and then blew his stack when Sessions did recuse himself. He demanded an attorney general who would protect him the way that he imagined Robert Kennedy protected his brother President John F. Kennedy and Eric Holder protected President Barack Obama.
  • A Sessions aide reportedly went looking for dirt on Comey, going to a congressional office for evidence several days before Comey was fired. Sessions apparently wanted one negative story a day on Comey in the media.
  • A White House lawyer, Uttam Dhillon, reportedly lied to the president, telling him he could not fire Comey without cause, because he was afraid of what Trump would do.

Let’s look at what each item tells us.

First, Comey, as many suspected, appears to have taken accurate notes that can at least in part be corroborated. The idea that discrediting Comey or the FBI will somehow protect Trump was always daft. Now, it should rightly be seen as a ridiculous, transparent attempt to again meddle in the investigation. Republicans engaged in this gambit should cut it out. They’re enabling a grossly inappropriate plan to smear a key witness to possible criminal activity.

As for the first draft of the letter, it not only shows the “real” motivation for the firing but also suggests a deliberate attempt by Trump and others present at his Bedminster, N.J., property to conceal the real reason for firing Comey. Those advisers include Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller. All are now arguably implicated in a potential obstruction scheme, as is Rosenstein, who knew the real reason for the firing. Everyone from the president on down who sought to fire Comey to stymie the Russia probe, if that is the case, and come up with a false rationale arguably committed obstruction of justice. 

The effort to keep Sessions in place may in and of itself be problematic. But Trump’s insistence on personal loyalty bolsters Comey’s claim that Trump demanded the same of him. It also reveals an intent to remove or interfere with the Justice Department’s actions, as if it were his personal law firm. The idea that the Justice Department should be protecting him and not the country goes to the essence of abuse of power.

If Sessions was looking for dirt on Comey, that makes him a thug and an unfit character to be attorney general. If he did that knowing the real reason Trump wanted to get rid of Comey, it’s a potential obstruction-of-justice problem.

As for Dhillon, this actually confirms author Michael Wolff’s ongoing refrain in his tell-all book that White House advisers considered Trump to be mentally and/or temperamentally incapable of doing his job. To continue to enable and defend him, knowing he is not capable of carrying out his oath, is a moral abomination and a violation of these advisers’ own oaths to defend the Constitution and country. Moreover, if Mueller has this information, it is because Dhillon and/or White House counsel Donald McGahn are talking to Mueller. Trump will now know that he is surrounded, in his mind, by disloyal people who are helping Mueller to make a case against him.

The walls are closing in on Trump, at least with respect to an obstruction-of-justice claim. Literally everyone mentioned above may have evidence that incriminates the president. Some of these people will have personal liability and therefore may be ready to cut a deal with prosecutors. The White House is melting down.

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