But perhaps nothing in the interview reflected his precarious position quite like what he said about some of his most loyal allies. And the theme of each was the same: These people aren’t doing enough to further his political goals by linking his prominent foes to crimes.
Less than 12 hours earlier, Trump’s loyal vice president, Mike Pence, won plaudits from conservatives for his debate performance against Harris. But Trump hijacked the debate news with an interview that included targeting arguably his two most loyal Cabinet members — Attorney General William P. Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — along with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
Trump built upon tweets this week suggesting Barr needs to start indicting people tied to the Russia investigation, while explicitly citing President Barack Obama and Biden.
“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes — the greatest political crime in the history of our country — then we’re going to get little satisfaction, unless I win,” Trump said, adding that he “won’t forget it” and that the crime “includes Obama, and that includes Biden.”
Trump also said at another point that “Bill has got to move” and that he would go down in history as a “very sad situation” if he doesn’t indict people. He said the Justice Department keeps asking for more information but that it already has all the information it needs.
But Obama and Biden weren’t the only ones Trump implicated in crimes and suggested he wanted his Cabinet officials to target. He also expressed rare dissatisfaction with Pompeo, who he said should release some sort of new information on Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“They’re in the State Department, but Mike Pompeo has been unable to get them out, which is very sad actually. I’m not happy about him for that reason,” Trump said. “He was unable to get that. I don’t know why. You’re running the State Department; you’re able to get them out.”
It wasn’t clear exactly what Trump was referring to, since the State Department has already released emails that it had.
While Trump has leaned on Barr before, and Barr has at least attempted to offer a veneer of criticizing Trump, the rebuke of Pompeo was highly unusual. Pompeo has bent over backward for Trump, dating back to his time as CIA director, and there’s rarely been daylight between the two men.
Trump also critiqued both men at multiple points in the interview, suggesting this was a concerted push rather than just a couple of one-off comments.
“Forget about the fact that they were classified,” Trump said of Clinton’s emails. “Let’s go. Maybe Mike Pompeo finally finds them, okay?”
Trump also reserved some of his harshest words to date for Wray, who has recently contradicted Trump’s baseless claims about massive mail-in voter fraud. Trump declined to say whether he would fire Wray.
“He’s been disappointing,” Trump said. “He talks about even the voting thing, that he doesn’t see the voting ballots as a problem,” he added before stating a baseless claim about voter fraud.
To some degree, this is par for the course for Trump. He often applies pressure on his Cabinet officials to fall in line, particularly when it comes to investigations. He spent much of former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s tenure, for example, attacking Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. He has even previously floated the idea that Barr’s tenure would be judged by whether he indicts people in the probe into the Russia investigation.
But the critiques of both Barr and Pompeo on Thursday were particularly direct and particularly conspicuously timed. Why was the president suddenly targeting two of his most loyal Cabinet officials, practically in the same breath? It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with time running out in the 2020 election, could it? Trump’s “Let’s go” comment to Pompeo could certain lead one to draw such conclusions.
The 2016 election, it bears emphasizing, arguably turned on a late announcement from then-FBI Director James B. Comey about newly discovered Clinton emails. Trump is basically asking for the exact same thing from Pompeo — and publicly so. But it seems he would settle for something supposedly incriminating involving Obama and Biden, too.
Trump has been ramping up the pressure on Barr in recent days, and Thursday’s interview was a fusillade of pleas for his allies to use their legal powers to further his political goals. If Trump’s political standing doesn’t improve — and perhaps even if it does — you can bet there will be more where this came from over the next four weeks.