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Monday, March 19, 2018

Donald Trump and the Banana Republicans

Posted by on Mon, Mar 19, 2018 at 9:45 AM

This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

So much has happened since Friday that it’s been hard to keep up. I’ll take a quick pass through the highlights, and then we can dig into the meat of the thing.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe a day before he was set to retire and collect his pension, ostensibly because McCabe “lacked candor” in interviews with DOJ officials over his media contacts during the Hillary Clinton investigation. However, as The New York Times notes: “Mr. McCabe was among the first at the F.B.I. to scrutinize possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. And he is a potential witness to the question of whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct justice. Mr. Trump has taunted Mr. McCabe both publicly and privately, and Republican allies have cast him as the center of a ‘deep state’ effort to undermine the Trump presidency. … He became the acting F.B.I. director after the sudden firing of his boss, Mr. Comey, and he publicly contradicted the White House on national television over whether Mr. Comey had lost the support of rank-and-file F.B.I. agents. Since then, Mr. Trump has repeatedly singled him out for public attack, suggesting that he helped protect Mrs. Clinton from prosecution during the 2016 presidential campaign. As evidence, he pointed to the fact that Mr. McCabe’s wife, Jill, ran as a Democrat for a State Senate seat in Virginia and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a political committee run by Terry McAuliffe, a longtime ally of the Clintons.”
  • Sessions, however, faces renewed questions about his own lack of candor. From Reuters: “Sessions testified before Congress in November 2017 that he ‘pushed back’ against the proposal made by former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos at a March 31, 2016 campaign meeting. … Sessions has since also been interviewed by Mueller. Three people who attended the March campaign meeting told Reuters they gave their version of events to FBI agents or congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. Although the accounts they provided to Reuters differed in certain respects, all three, who declined to be identified, said Sessions had expressed no objections to Papadopoulos’ idea.”
  • We also learned that McCabe kept memos on Trump and turned them over to Mueller.
  • On Twitter, Trump praised McCabe’s firing and assailed Mueller’s probe in what can only be described as an unhinged rant. From the NYT: “Mr. Trump has long suggested that allegations that he or his campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election were a ‘hoax’ and part of a ‘witch hunt,’ but until this weekend he had largely heeded the advice of lawyers who counseled him not to directly attack Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for fear of antagonizing prosecutors. ‘Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans?’ Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. ‘Another Dem recently added...does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!’”
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WHAT IT MEANS: Trump isn’t being coy here. It’s never really been his style, but that’s especially the case when he’s feeling his oats, as he appears to be now.
  • As the Times reported this weekend: “A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him. That self-confidence has led to a series of surprising comments and actions that have pushed the Trump presidency in an ever more tumultuous direction.”
  • CNN adds: “Donald Trump's weekend of assaults on Robert Mueller's investigation pushed Washington closer than ever to the major crisis of governance that could ensue if the President were to act on his fury and fire the special counsel.”
  • And therein lies the million-dollar question: If Trump went through with a plan to fire Mueller—say, by firing Rosenstein, or by firing Sessions so the new AG didn’t have a recusal issue—would congressional Republicans stand aside and let it happen? Would they let the president summarily end an investigation into his own conduct with barely a whimper? A few suggested they wouldn’t. Lindsey Graham warned Trump that firing Mueller would be the “beginning of the end of his presidency.” Marco Rubio said McCabe should have been allowed to retire.
  • But most have been silent: “The lack of clarity from the majority party in Congress about potential repercussions may embolden Trump, who last week fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and is said to be contemplating a bigger shakeup of his Cabinet and inner circle. The president’s attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling—and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it—channeled a long-running narrative on conservative news outlets. … Opposition to the president is politically perilous for most Republican lawmakers because of Trump’s popularity among the party’s voters. The strongest Republican response to the attacks on the Mueller probe from Trump and his lawyer came from Graham, who repeated in a CNN interview his warning from last year that firing Mueller would be ‘the beginning of the end of his presidency.’ Few Republicans joined in. Most ducked the issue while at home over the weekend, though House Speaker Paul Ryan’s spokeswoman, Ashlee Strong, reaffirmed his standing position that the probe should continue.”
  • This is important: “Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee and a member of the Intelligence Committee, dinged Dowd, the president’s lawyer, for calling for the investigation to be shut down. … But asked what the House of Representatives, which has the power to bring articles of impeachment, would do if Trump fired Mueller, Gowdy said ‘I’m not sure the House can do a lot.’”
  • Congressional efforts to protect the Mueller probe, meanwhile, have stalled.
  • To sum up: there’s some hand-wringing about Trump’s not-so-implicit threats, sure, but if Trump makes his move to shut down the probe, Republicans are going to sit back and watch him do it. And for that, history—and maybe voters come November—will judge them.

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