Trump Defends Initial Remarks on Charlottesville; Again Blames ‘Both Sides’

Via The New York Times:

President Trump reverted Tuesday to blaming both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., and at one point questioned whether the movement to pull down Confederate statues would lead to the desecration of memorials to George Washington.

Abandoning his precisely chosen and carefully delivered condemnations of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis from a day earlier, the president furiously stuck by his initial reaction to the unrest in Charlottesville. He drew the very moral equivalency for which a bipartisan chorus, and his own advisers, had already criticized him.

“I think there is blame on both sides,” the president said in a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”

Mr. Trump defended those gathered in a Charlottesville park to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” he said. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

He criticized “alt-left” groups that he claimed were “very, very violent” when they sought to confront the white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that had gathered in Charlottesville.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

It was a remarkable rejection of the criticism he confronted after waiting two days before naming the right-wing groups in the bloodshed that ended with the death of a young woman after a car crashed into a crowd of protesters.

Mr. Trump accused people he called the alt-left of “swinging clubs” as they “came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right.” He said some of the right-wing members of the crowd in the Virginia park were “bad.” But he added that the other side came “charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”

Aides had urged him for days to take the high ground, persuading him on Monday to read a brief statement condemning the neo-Nazi groupsfrom the Diplomatic Room in the White House. But over the past day, back in his private New York residence for the first time since becoming president, Mr. Trump was alone, without his wife and young son, and consuming hours of television, with many on cable news telling him he had not done enough.

* * *

His largely unprovoked presidential rant on Tuesday instantly sparked an even more intense critique, especially from Republicans.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan called white supremacy “repulsive” and said “there can be no moral ambiguity.” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, tweeted: “Blaming ‘both sides’ for #Charlottesville?! No.” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said white nationalists in Charlottesville were “100% to blame” and wagged his finger at the president for suggesting otherwise.

“The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win,” Mr. Rubio said on Twitter moments after Mr. Trump’s remarks. “We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected.”

Senator Todd Young of Indiana, a freshman Republican, wrote: “This is simple: we must condemn and marginalize white supremacist groups, not encourage and embolden them.”

Even members of Mr. Trump’s own military appeared to take quick offense to their commander’s words. Hours after the president spoke, the Marine Corps commandant, General Robert B. Neller, wrote in a tweet that there is “no place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act.”

Mr. Trump delivered his remarks in the lobby of Trump Tower, where officials had spent much of the day trying to erase certain telltale signatures of the brand that would be caught on TV — most significantly, a blue curtain was placed over the Ivanka Trump display in the lobby.

If Mr. Trump was aware of the reaction that would ensue after his clearly improvised remarks, he appeared immune to the consequences of those words, which electrified the lobby of his signature office building. It was there in 2015 that he launched his presidential campaign with a furious assault on illegal immigrants and a declaration that Mexicans were “rapists” bringing crime into the United States.

Instead, the president seemed determined to convince any doubters that he did not misspeak in his first reaction to the events in Virginia on Saturday.

Mr. Trump said his initial statement was shaped by a lack of information about the events in Charlottesville, even though television statements had been broadcasting images of the violence throughout the morning.

Much more here.

Trump is out of control, and has been so for quite some time and no longer should he be given any benefit of the doubt.

Trump campaign emails show aide’s repeated efforts to set up Russia meetings

Via The Washington Post:

Three days after Donald Trump named his campaign foreign policy team in March 2016, the youngest of the new advisers sent an email to seven campaign officials with the subject line: “Meeting with Russian Leadership – Including Putin.”

The adviser, George Papadopoulos, offered to set up “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump,” telling them his Russian contacts welcomed the opportunity, according to internal campaign emails read to The Washington Post.

The proposal sent a ripple of concern through campaign headquarters in Trump Tower. Campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote that he thought NATO allies should be consulted before any plans were made. Another Trump adviser, retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, cited legal concerns, including a possible violation of U.S. sanctions against Russia and of the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments.

But Papadopoulos, a campaign volunteer with scant foreign policy experience, persisted. Between March and September, the self-described energy consultant sent at least a half-dozen requests for Trump, as he turned from primary candidate to party nominee, or for members of his team to meet with Russian officials. Among those to express concern about the effort was then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who rejected in May 2016 a proposal from Papadopoulos for Trump to do so.

The exchanges are among more than 20,000 pages of documents the Trump campaign turned over to congressional committees this month after review by White House and defense lawyers. The selection of Papadopoulos’s emails were read to The Post by a person with access to them. Two other people with access to the emails confirmed the general tone of the exchanges and some specific passages within them.

Papadopoulos emerges from the sample of emails as a new and puzzling figure in the examination of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and their proxies during the 2016 election, now the subject of a special-counsel investigation.

Less than a decade out of college, Papadopoulos appeared to hold little sway within the campaign, and it is unclear whether he was acting as an intermediary for the Russian government, although he told campaign officials he was.

While the emails illustrate his eagerness to strengthen the campaign’s connections to the Russian government, Papadopoulos does not spell out in them why it would be in Trump’s interest to do so. His entreaties appear to have generated more concern than excitement within the campaign, which at the time was looking to seal the Republican nomination and take on a heavily favored Hillary Clinton in the general election.

But the internal resistance to Papadopoulos’s requests is at odds with other overtures Trump allies were making toward Russia at the time, mostly at a more senior level of the campaign.

Three months after Papadopoulos raised the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner met with a delegation led by a Russian lawyer offering to provide damaging information on Clinton.

Manafort attended that Trump Tower session in June 2016, a meeting now under scrutiny in the special counsel’s collusion inquiry. But the new emails reveal that Manafort had rejected a request from Papadopoulos just the previous month to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian officials.

In July 2016 and again two months later, Jeff Sessions, then a senator and senior foreign policy adviser to Trump, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

And also in July, a few weeks after Papadopoulos asked his superiors whether other campaign advisers or aides could accept some of the Russians’ invitations, Carter Page, another foreign policy adviser, spoke at a Russian university in Moscow. Page said he made the trip independently of the campaign.

Much more here.

‘We should call evil by its name’: Republicans are standing up to Trump more directly than ever on Charlottesville

Amber Phillips, reporting for the Washington Post:

When President Trump issued his travel ban a few days into his presidency, at least eight Senate Republicans opposed it. When he fired his FBI director in May, more than a dozen Senate Republicans openly questioned it. When Trump prodded senators to vote for an Obamacare repeal bill, three of them didn’t. When Trump urged Republicans to try again or risk being labeled failures, they ignored him. When Trump started attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week, a handful of them went out of their way to publicly back McConnell.

And with Charlottesville on its knees this weekend as protests led by white supremacists turned deadly, Senate Republicans had their most overt conflict with the president yet.

A number of Senate Republicans criticized nothing less than the way Trump chose to be president Saturday. They publicly and directly condemned his words and action. More specifically, they criticized his lack of words and actions to clearly and forcefully denounce the white supremacy roiling Charlottesville’s streets and seizing the nation’s attention.

White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.

There’s no nuance in those statements, no need to read between the lines. These Republicans think the president did a bad job being president in the midst of a violent, fraught crisis. Their criticism carries extra heft when you consider that these lawmakers mostly weren’t prodded by reporters, microphones thrust in their faces, to say any of this. Congress is on break, so wherever in the world these lawmakers were, they made the proactive decision Saturday to go on Twitter — or call up their staff to write a statement — and criticize the president.

This moment has echoes of the release of the crude “Access Hollywood” tape in the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign. These senators would probably rather not get into it with the leader of their party, but they feel as if he has done something so egregious that they have no choice but to speak out.

Making their criticism of Trump even more notable: Just a few days ago came a tangible warning of the consequences that criticizing Trump can bring. After Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a book declaring that his party is in denial about Trump, a pro-Trump donor wrote one of the senator’s primary challengers a $300,000 check.

Not everyone who spoke out Saturday has as much on the line as Flake. Most aren’t even up for reelection in 2018. (Though Gardner is the chairman of Senate Republicans’ reelection committee.)

And liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up that this means Republicans are suddenly on the impeachment path. But the past few months, and especially this weekend, make clear that Republicans in Congress are increasingly comfortable confronting their president in more direct ways.

Trump babbles in the face of tragedy

Michael Gerson, reporting for the Washington Post:

One of the difficult but primary duties of the modern presidency is to speak for the nation in times of tragedy. A space shuttle explodes. An elementary school is attacked. The twin towers come down in a heap of ash and twisted steel. It falls to the president to express something of the nation’s soul — grief for the lost, sympathy for the suffering, moral clarity in the midst of confusion, confidence in the unknowable purposes of God.

Not every president does this equally well. But none have been incapable. Until Donald Trump.

Trump’s reaction to events in Charlottesville was alternately trite (“come together as one”), infantile (“very, very sad”) and meaningless (“we want to study it”). “There are so many great things happening in our country,” he said, on a day when racial violence took a life.

At one level, this is the natural result of defining authenticity as spontaneity. Trump and his people did not believe the moment worthy of rhetorical craft, worthy of serious thought. The president is confident that his lazy musings are equal to history. They are not. They are babble in the face of tragedy. They are an embarrassment and disservice to the country.

The president’s remarks also represent a failure of historical imagination. The flash point in Charlottesville was the history of the Civil War. Cities around the country are struggling with the carved-stone legacy of past battles and leaders. The oppression and trauma that led to Appomattox did not end there. Ghosts still deploy on these battlefields. And the casualties continue.

But Trump could offer no context for this latest conflict. No inspiring ideals from the author of the Declaration of Independence, who called Charlottesville home. No healing words from the president who was killed by a white supremacist. By his flat, foolish utterance, Trump proved once again that he has no place in the company of these leaders.

Ultimately this was not merely the failure of rhetoric or context, but of moral judgment. The president could not bring himself initially to directly acknowledge the victims or distinguish between the instigators and the dead. He could not focus on the provocations of the side marching under a Nazi flag. Is this because he did not want to repudiate some of his strongest supporters? This would indicate that Trump views loyalty to himself as mitigation for nearly any crime or prejudice. Or is the president truly convinced of the moral equivalence of the sides in Charlottesville? This is to diagnose an ethical sickness for which there is no cure.

There is no denying that Trump has used dehumanization — refugees are “animals,” Mexican migrants are “rapists,” Muslims are threats — as a political tool. And there is no denying that hateful political rhetoric can give permission for prejudice. “It acts as a psychological lubricant,” says David Livingstone Smith, “dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under normal circumstances, be unthinkable.”

If great words can heal and inspire, base words can corrupt. Trump has been delivering the poison of prejudice in small but increasing doses. In Charlottesville, the effect became fully evident. And the president had no intention of decisively repudiating his work.

What do we do with a president who is incapable or unwilling to perform his basic duties? What do we do when he is incapable of outrage at outrageous things? What do we do with a president who provides barely veiled cover for the darkest instincts of the human heart? These questions lead to the dead end of political realism — a hopeless recognition of limited options. But the questions intensify.

One dead and 19 injured as car strikes crowds along route of white nationalist rally in Charlottesville

Via The Washington Post:

A chaotic and violent day turned to tragedy Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members — planning to stage what they described as their largest rally in decades to “take America back” — clashed with counterprotesters in the streets and a car plowed into crowds, killing one person and injuring 19 others.

Angela Taylor, a spokeswoman for UVA Medical Center, said 20 people were brought to the hospital in the early afternoon after three cars collided in a pedestrian mall packed with people. One died, she said, although she could not say if it was a man or woman or give any identifying information. Another 15 people were injured during street brawls, city officials said.

Earlier, police had evacuated a downtown park as rallygoers and counterprotesters traded blows and hurled bottles and chemical irritants at one another, putting an end to the noon rally before it even began.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency shortly before 11 a.m., saying he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence” and blaming “mostly out-of-state protesters.”

Despite the decision to quash the rally, clashes continued on side streets and throughout the downtown. In the early afternoon, three cars collided in a pedestrian mall at Water and Fourth Streets, sending bystanders running and screaming. It was unclear if it was accidental or intentional.

“I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here,” said Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer in a tweet. “I urge all people of good will–go home.”

Elected leaders in Virginia and elsewhere urged peace, blasting the white supremacist views on display in Charlottesville as ugly. U.S. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called their display “repugnant.”

But President Trump, known for the rapid-fire tweets, remained silent throughout the morning. It was after 1 p.m. when he weighed in, writing on Twitter: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

At a late-afternoon news conference to discuss veterans’ health care, Trump said that he was following the events in Charlottesville closely. “The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now,” Trump said, without specifically mentioning white nationalists or their views. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides,” he said.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a Trump supporter who was in Charlottesville Saturday, quickly shot back at the president. “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?” Duke tweeted. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”

Dozens of the white nationalists in Charlottesville were wearing red Make America Great Again hats. Asked by a reporter in New Jersey whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, Trump did not respond.

By early afternoon, hundreds of rallygoers had made their way from Emancipation Park — where they had expected to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue — to a larger park two miles to the north. Duke, speaking to the crowd, called Saturday’s events “the first step toward taking America back.”

“The truth is European Americans face tremendous discrimination in this country — jobs, scholarships, promotions,” Duke said. “The truth is we are being ethnically cleansed within our own nation.”

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer also addressed the group, urging people to disperse. But he promised that they would gather again for a future demonstration, blaming Saturday’s violence on counterprotesters.

Even as crowds began to thin, the town remained unsettled and on edge. Onlookers were deeply shaken at the pedestrian mall, where ambulances had arrived to treat victims of the car crash.

Susie McClannahan, 24, said counterprotesters were marching on Fourth Street when she saw a “silver gray vehicle” drive through the crowd, and then immediately shift into reverse in what she described as full speed.

“Everyone was in shock and all of a sudden we heard people scream get to the wall because the driver was backing up,” McClannahan said. She said those closest to the accident ran to those injured in the street.

“I didn’t want to believe it was real. It was just so horrible,” she said.

Hunter Harmon, 20, saw people “flung” in the air after they were hit by a car and he heard others screaming.

“We were marching and next to each other and all of a sudden I just heard a bunch of bangs and I saw a bunch of people flying through the air and people injured on the ground,” Harmon said.

Much more here.

Calls for diplomacy vie with fresh threats in North Korea crisis

Via The Washington Post:

Calls for more intense diplomacy on North Korea vied Friday with threats of force, with little sense of what strategy would prevail in Washington or Pyongyang or which leader would blink first.

As the vacationing president tossed off remarks that in other times would have indicated imminent conflict, U.S. friends and foes could only watch, wait and hold their breath.

“Nobody loves a peaceful solution more than President Trump,” Trump told reporters late in the day, after a meeting at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

But, Trump said, “we could also have a bad solution.” Asked by a reporter whether he was “thinking of war” with North Korea, Trump said enigmatically, “I think you know the answer to that.”

As questions strayed into other areas of foreign and domestic policy, Trump said without elaboration that he was “not going to rule out a military option” to deal with political strife in Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro, whom he has called a “dictator.”

But most of Trump’s comments returned again to North Korea. He said that the United States was preparing “very, very strong” additional sanctions against Pyongyang, following last Saturday’s unanimous U.N. Security Council passage of a harsh sanctions package.

Asked whether he and the president were on the same page, Tillerson, who has emphasized a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, said, “Totally.”

“It takes a combined message if we’re going to get effective movement out of the regime in North Korea. . . . I think the president has made it clear he prefers a diplomatic solution,” said the secretary, who stood at Trump’s side.

The president said he planned to speak by telephone Friday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China has indicated that it would stay neutral if North Korea struck first and the United States retaliated but would intervene on behalf of Pyongyang after a U.S. first strike.

In other world reactions Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “verbal escalation” was the “wrong response” to Pyongyang’s heated rhetoric, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was equally worried about U.S. talk of a preemptive strike and North Korea’s warning of an attack near Guam.

Trump began the day on Twitter with a fresh threat, saying the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” and ready to take action against North Korea if it continues to “act unwisely.” To drive home the point, he retweeted images from the U.S. Pacific Command showing Air Force B-1B bombers.

In Pyongyang, a commentary in the state-run newspaper said that “U.S. military warmongers are running amok” and warned that “the U.S. and its vassal forces will pay dearly” for new economic sanctions and for “reckless military provocation.”

The State Department said Tillerson traveled to New Jersey to brief Trump on his just-completed trip to East Asia. In regional summits and bilateral meetings, Tillerson pushed for full implementation of the new sanctions against North Korea that Haley successfully shepherded through the Security Council.

Neither Tillerson nor Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have spoken directly about Trump’s threats. Mattis has said the military is prepared for any eventuality but has warned of the catastrophic nature of war. Both Mattis and Tillerson have issued statements this week indicating that diplomacy and economic pressure remain the centerpieces of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Trump said that for part of the day Monday he would return to Washington, where he said he has scheduled a “very important meeting” and would have “a pretty big press conference.”

On Thursday and again Friday, Trump seemed to relish the opportunity to rattle U.S. sabers in brief exchanges with reporters interspersed among meetings on national security and other subjects. Those who say he is increasing tensions “are only saying that because it’s me,” he said after a midday session on workforce issues. “If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they’d say, ‘What a great statement, what a wonderful statement.’ . . . We have tens of millions of people in this country that are saying . . . ‘Finally, we have a president that’s sticking up for our nation.’ ”

What he meant by “locked and loaded” was “pretty obvious,” Trump said. “Those words are very, very easy to understand.” If Kim “utters one threat in the form of an overt threat . . . if he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else . . . he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast.”

Asked about Merkel’s remarks, Trump said: “Perhaps she was speaking for Germany. She is certainly not referring to the United States.” He called Merkel “a very good person” who was a friend of his and of his daughter Ivanka.

More here.

Trump steps up attacks on McConnell for failure on health-care reform

John Wagner, writing for the Washington Post:

President Trump on Thursday stepped up criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not muscling through a health-care bill, escalating an extraordinary fight with a key leader of his own party.

“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!”

Trump’s morning tweet came less than 24 hours after he first went after McConnell on Twitter, taking issue with remarks the Kentucky Republican made earlier in the week suggesting that Trump’s lack of political experience had led to“excessive expectations” for passing major legislation.

Trump has remained bitter about the failure of congressional Republicans to pass a bill overhauling the Affordable Care Act, a pledge the party has made since 2010 and a marquee campaign promise for Trump.

The sparring with McConnell was the latest sign of increasingly strained relations between Trump and Republicans in Congress, who have had few victories since January despite the GOP’s control of the White House and both the House and Senate.

Since the collapse of a health-care bill, Trump has belittled GOP senators as looking like “fools” and suggested they change the chamber’s rules to make it easier to pass bills.

The president’s attacks on a leader popular among Senate Republicans comes as lawmakers are poised to try to tackle other shared — but challenging — priorities in the fall, including tax reform, as well as craft a budget and raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

“Discerning a particular strategy or goal from these tweets is hard,” said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant and former Capitol Hill staffer. “It just doesn’t help enact any part of his agenda, and it sends a further troubling sign to Capitol Hill Republicans already wary of the White House.”

Heye said that with Trump’s job approval numbers declining among the Republican base, “now is the time to build support within the party.”

In his remarks on Monday to the Rotary Club of Florence, Ky., McConnell said, “Our new president had of course not been in this line of work before.” He added: “I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”

McConnell said people think Congress is underperforming partly because “artificial deadlines, unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating, may not have been fully understood.”

Trump on Wednesday publicly rejected that notion while on a 17-day working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so,” the president wrote on Twitter. “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?”

Earlier Wednesday, Dan Scavino Jr., the White House social media director, also went after McConnell on Twitter.

“More excuses,” wrote Scavino, an outspoken Trump loyalist. “@SenateMajLdr must have needed another 4 years — in addition to the 7 years — to repeal and replace Obamacare…..”

Sean Hannity, a Fox News host often sympathetic to Trump, also weighed in following McConnell’s remarks, writing on Twitter: “@SenateMajLdr No Senator, YOU are a WEAK, SPINELESS leader who does not keep his word and you need to Retire!”

Rosenstein: Special counsel Mueller can investigate any crimes he uncovers in Russia probe

Kelsey Snell and John Wagner, writing in the Washington Post:

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said Sunday that the expanding investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is continuing apace, even as President Trump dismissed the probe as “a total fabrication.”

Rosenstein said special counsel Robert S. Mueller III can investigate any crimes that he might discover within the scope of his probe, but the deputy attorney general would not discuss which individuals are the subject of their inquiry. The interview comes days after Trump said he believes it would be inappropriate for Mueller to dig into Trump family finances.

“The special counsel is subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice, and we don’t engage in fishing expeditions,” Rosenstein said when asked about the probe in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

Rosenstein declined to comment on reports that Mueller is using a grand jury in a court in Washington to aid in his investigation but he said that such a step is a routine part of “many investigations.”

“It’s an appropriate way to gather documents, sometimes to bring witnesses in, to make sure that you get their full testimony,” Rosenstein said. “It’s just a tool that we use like any other tool in the course of our investigations. “

Trump and his inner circle have repeatedly dismissed the investigation amid frequent reports that Mueller and his team are digging into broader details on the financial dealings of members of Trump’s campaign team. Senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called the probe a “fabrication” in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” Trump called it “the totally made-up Russia story” in a campaign-style speech he delivered Thursday in West Virginia.

The attacks have raised concerns among Democrats and some Republicans that Trump may be looking for ways to undermine the investigation. Those fears led Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) to propose legislation that would give a judge the ability to review any decision by the president to fire Muller.

Tillis said Sunday that he does not agree that the investigation is a witch hunt and said the bill is intended to bolster the independence of the Justice Department.

“We’ll let the facts lead us to whether or not it was a hoax or a distraction,” Tillis said during a “This Week” interview. “But we are where we are, and I want to see this investigation concluded so that we can get on to doing the good work the president has already started with regulatory reform, health care and tax reform.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Mueller’s impaneling of a D.C. grand jury “a significant development,” noting that it has been more than a year since former FBI director James B. Comey launched a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

“That means one year later, rather than turning that investigation off, rather than concluding ‘We’ve looked at this for a year; there’s really nothing to see here,’ as the president would claim, instead . . . it’s moving into a new phase,” Schiff said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That wouldn’t be taking place if there was really no evidence, no evidentiary basis to move forward.”

He said an additional reason to continue investigating was the disclosure of the June 2016 meeting of Donald Trump Jr., campaign officials and a Russian lawyer, which was set up with the advertised purpose of sharing damaging information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“And now you add on the layer of the president, if these allegations are true, helping to fabricate a false statement about what that meeting was about,” Schiff said, referring to the White House’s acknowledgment that Trump weighed in on an initial statement issued by Trump Jr. about the meeting that did not mention its pretext.

Schiff also said the House Intelligence Committee and Mueller are looking at some of the same issues related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, including payments Flynn allegedly received from Turkey during the final months of the presidential campaign and from RT, a Russian government-backed television network.

“If General Flynn was shown to have violated the law in other ways, it would be an incentive for him to cooperate more broadly with the Mueller investigation,” Schiff said.

More here.

Bobby Sticks It to Trump

Maureen Dowd, writing for the New York Times:

As we contemplate crime and punishment in the Trump circle, it should be noted that our Russia-besotted president does share some traits with Dostoyevsky’s spiraling protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

Both men are naifs who arrive and think they have the right to transgress. Both are endlessly fascinating psychological studies: self-regarding, with Napoleon-style grandiosity, and self-incriminating. Both are consumed with chaotic, feverish thoughts as they are pursued by a relentless, suspicious lawman.

But it is highly doubtful that Melania will persuade Donald to confess all to special counsel Robert Mueller III and slink off to Siberia.

We are in for an epic clash between two septuagenarians who both came from wealthy New York families and attended Ivy League schools but couldn’t be more different — the flamboyant flimflam man and the buttoned-down, buttoned-up boy scout. (And we know the president has no idea how to talk to scouts appropriately.)

One has been called America’s straightest arrow. One disdains self-promotion and avoids the press. One married his sweetheart from school days. One was a decorated Marine in Vietnam. One counts patience, humility and honesty as the virtues he lives by and likes to say “You’re only as good as your word.”

And one’s president.

Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio says the president has been lying reflexively since he was a kid bragging about home runs he didn’t hit. He gets warped satisfaction from making up stuff, like those calls from the head of the Boy Scouts and the president of Mexico that the White House just admitted never happened.

Much more here.

Special Counsel Mueller using grand jury in federal court in Washington as part of Russia investigation

Via The Washington Post:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began using a grand jury in federal court in Washington several weeks ago as part of his investigation of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

The development is a sign that investigators continue to aggressively gather evidence in the case, and that Mueller is taking full control of a probe that predated him.

In recent weeks and months, Mueller has been expanding the legal team working on the matter, and recently added Greg Andres, a longtime white-collar lawyer specializing in foreign bribery who previously worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Mueller’s investigation now includes a look at whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James B. Comey, as well as deep dives into financial and other dealings of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Federal prosecutors had previously been using a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia, and even before Mueller was appointed, had increased their activity, issuing subpoenas and taking other investigative steps.

The Wall Street Journal on Thursday first reported the existence of the Washington grand jury.

A White House adviser said the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had not received subpoenas, nor had the White House. Members of the president’s legal team met with Mueller three weeks ago to express their desire to work with his investigators.

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment for this article.

Ty Cobb, whom Trump appointed as White House special counsel, said of the grand jury: “This is news to me, but it’s welcome news to the extent it suggests that it may accelerate the resolution of Mr. Mueller’s work. The White House has every interest in bringing this to a prompt and fair conclusion. As we’ve said in the past, we’re committed to cooperating fully with Mr. Mueller.”

Mueller has largely removed the original prosecutors from the case, replacing them with a formidable collection of legal talent and expertise in prosecuting national security, fraud and public corruption cases, arguing matters before the Supreme Court and assessing complicated legal questions.

In federal cases, a grand jury is not necessarily an indication that an indictment is imminent or even likely. Instead, it is a powerful investigative tool that prosecutors use to compel witnesses to testify or force people or companies to turn over documents.

It’s unclear why Mueller chose to use a panel in the District, although there are practical reasons to do so. The special counsel’s office is located in Southwest D.C. — much closer to the federal courthouse in the city than the one in Alexandria, Va. Mueller also had previously worked in the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., giving him some familiarity with the courthouse and the judges.

Experts said that Washington would be the appropriate place to convene a grand jury to examine actions taken by Trump since he became president and took up residence at the White House. Many of the potential crimes Mueller’s team is investigating would have occurred in the District, such as allegations that Trump aides or advisers made false statements in disclosure records or lied to federal agents. The Post has previously reported that Mueller is investigating whether the president tried to obstruct justice leading up to his firing of Comey.

Others said the choice could reflect Mueller’s reputation for planning ahead and gaming out a possible trial. He could have better chances convicting aides to Trump in a city in which 90 percent of voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

More here.

Can this marriage be saved? Relationship between Trump, Senate GOP hits new skids.

Sean Sullivan, reporting for the Washington Post:

The relationship between President Trump and Senate Republicans has deteriorated so sharply in recent days that some are openly defying his directives, bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil as the GOP labors to reorient its stalled legislative agenda.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced Tuesday that he would work with his Democratic colleagues to “stabilize and strengthen” the individual insurance market under the Affordable Care Act, which the president has badgered the Senate to keep trying to repeal. Alexander also urged the White House to keep up payments to insurers that help low-income consumers afford plans, which Trump has threatened to cut off.

Several Republican senators have sought to distance themselves from the president, who has belittled them as looking like “fools” and tried to strong-arm their agenda and browbeat them into changing a venerated rule to make it easier to ram through legislation along party lines.

Some are describing the dynamic in cold, transactional terms, speaking of Trump as more of a supporting actor than the marquee leader of the Republican Party. If he can help advance their plans, then great, they say. If not, so be it.

“We work for the American people. We don’t work for the president,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said. He added, “We should do what’s good for the administration as long as that does not in any way, shape or form make it harder on the American people.”

The friction underscores the challenge Republicans face headed into the fall. As they seek to move beyond a failed health-care effort in pursuit of an elusive, first big legislative win, the same infighting that has plagued them all year threatens to stall their push to rewrite the nation’s tax laws, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he wants to do beginning in September and finish by year’s end.

While some Republicans try to tune out what they see as distracting and sometimes destructive rhetoric and action from Trump, they recognize that they cannot fully disavow him without also dashing their hopes of implementing the conservative policies they championed in the campaign.

For many Republican senators, the challenge is trying to walk an increasingly fine line.

As public opinion polls show a decline in Trump’s approval rating, some Republican senators have sought to address difficult questions about what the president’s diminishing popularity means for his mandate by insisting that congressional Republicans, not Trump, are the ones driving the GOP agenda.

“Ever since we’ve been here, we’ve really been following our lead,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). After ticking through major Republican initiatives so far, he added, “Almost every bit of this has been 100 percent internal to Congress.”

Senate GOP leaders have openly flouted Trump’s attempts to steer them back to repealing and replacing the ACA, an endeavor that collapsed in failure last week. On Tuesday, McConnell laid out the rest of the Senate’s plans before adjourning for the summer recess. Health care was not among them.

Instead, Alexander signaled he would go around the president. He and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced they would hold fall hearings to shore up the individual health insurance markets. It was the most concrete sign yet of bipartisan work in the Senate on strengthening the existing health-care law, and it followed a proposal offered Monday by a bipartisan group of 43 House members.

Much more here.

Trump dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting with Russian lawyer

Via The Washington Post:

On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.

The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.

But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.

Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”

The claims were later shown to be misleading.

Over the next three days, multiple accounts of the meeting were provided to the news media as public pressure mounted, with Trump Jr. ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an email promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.

As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III looks into potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.

“This was . . . unnecessary,” said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”

Trump has already come under criticism for steps he has taken to challenge and undercut the Russia investigation.

He fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9 after a private meeting in which Comey said the president asked him if he could end the investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates that Trump asked him in March if he could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on Flynn. In addition, Trump has repeatedly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russian investigation — a decision that was one factor leading to the appointment of Mueller. And he has privately discussed his power to issue pardons, including for himself, and explored potential avenues for undercutting Mueller’s work.

Much more here.

Behold the Trump boomerang effect

Fred Hiatt, reporting for the Washington Post:

Did your head spin when Utah’s Orrin Hatch, a true conservative and the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, emerged last week as the most eloquent spokesman for transgender rights? Credit the Trump boomerang effect.

Much has been said about White House dysfunction and how little President Trump has accomplished in his first six months. But that’s not the whole story: In Washington and around the world, in some surprising ways, things are happening — but they are precisely the opposite of what Trump wanted and predicted when he was sworn in.

The boomerang struck first in Europe. Following his election last November, and the British vote last June to leave the European Union, anti-immigrant nationalists were poised to sweep to power across the continent. “In the wake of the electoral victories of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump, right-wing populism in the rich world has appeared unstoppable,” the Economist wrote. Russian President Vladimir Putin would gain allies, the European Union would fracture.

But European voters, sobered by the spectacle on view in Washington, moved the other way. In March, the Netherlands rejected an anti-immigrant party in favor of a mainstream, conservative coalition. In May, French voters spurned the Putin-loving, immigrant-bashing Marine Le Pen in favor of centrist Emmanuel Macron, who went on to win an overwhelming majority in Parliament and began trying to strengthen, not weaken, the E.U.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump belittled for having allowed so many refugees into her country, has grown steadily more popular in advance of a September election.

Trump’s win seemed certain to bring U.S.-Russian ties out of the deep freeze. Again, the opposite has happened. Congress, which can’t agree on anything, came close to unanimity last week in endorsing tough, Trump-proof sanctions against the Putin regime. Russia is expelling diplomats and seizing U.S. diplomatic properties. The new Cold War is colder than ever.

The third sure thing, once Republicans took control, was the quick demise of Obamacare. We saw last week how that turned out. But here’s the boomerang effect: Obamacare is not just hanging on but becoming more popular the more Trump tries to bury it. And if he now tries to mismanage Obamacare to its death, we may boomerang all the way to single-payer health insurance. This year’s debate showed that most Americans now believe everyone should have access to health care. If the private insurance market is made to seem undependable, the fallback won’t be Trumpcare. It will be Medicare for all.

Once you start looking, you find the boomerang at work in many surprising places. Trump’s flirting with a ban on Muslim immigration encouraged federal judges to encroach on executive power over visa policy. Firing FBI Director James B. Comey entrenched the Russia investigation far more deeply. Withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty spurred states from California to Virginia to toughen their policies on global warming. Threatening the research budget may have strengthened the National Institutes of Health’s hand in Washington. And so on.

The boomerang effect is no panacea. Trump can still do grave damage at home and abroad in the next 3½ years. If he undermined Obamacare, millions of people would suffer before we got to single-payer. Nationalist governments ensconced in parts of Eastern Europe could still draw strength from Trump. The absence of U.S. leadership in the world leaves ample ground for others to cause trouble.

More here.

Trump’s iceberg looms

Kathleen Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

Donald Trump had his worst day since he was elected president — we’ll just call it Friday — and his worst week since the last one.

Things can only get worser and worser, as the Bard would permit me to say.

Let’s start with the vote-a-rama and the “skinny repeal,” which puts me in mind of a state fair ride and placing an order at Starbucks.

I’d like a skinny repeal, please — venti, with mocha.

As all know by now, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) didn’t get the skinny on repeal and shocked the chamber by voting no with a thumbs-down. Not even with a Republican majority could Trump dump Obamacare in its slimmest version yet. McCain, who postponed treatment for aggressive brain cancer and flew to Washington to cast his vote, joined fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as all the Democratic members, to put the kibosh on any real hope of repeal this year, much less replace.

In most ways, McCain’s seemingly last-minute maneuver should have surprised no one. Always the maverick, McCain, who has defied death before, is no one’s wingman. If he thought this vote might be his last stand in the arena, he would make it worthwhile and memorable.

Back at the Ponderosa, Trump at least had a soul mate in whom to confide, Anthony Scaramucci, the White House’s new communications director. “Mooch” or “Mini-Me” to Washington insiders, Scaramucci is Trump’s kneecapper. Good cop, meet seriously bad cop.

Scaramucci is the personification of Trump’s deep brain. To the extent that the president ever withholds a thought, Scaramucci is there to express it for him. He’s his human Twitter feed. Thus, we may assume that what Scaramucci says, Trump thinks. Thanks to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, we’re privy to enough premium quotes to entertain ourselves for months.

As you may have heard, Scaramucci called Lizza on Wednesday in a rage over his “leaked” financial records and Lizza’s reporting of an intimate Trump dinner that included Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who, sources say, told Trump that then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is a leaker. When Scaramucci demanded that Lizza divulge his source, Lizza, a polite, erudite fellow, declined and did what reporters sometimes do: He taped the conversation, capturing a hailstorm of profane tirades against leakers and, specifically, Priebus — “a [expletive] paranoid schizophrenic.” By late Friday afternoon, Priebus was out of a job, with Trump tweeting that he was replacing him with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

Next, we visit El Salvador, where, strangely, we find Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We know Trump wants to get rid of Sessions, but sending him into the maw of the beastly MS-13 gang seems excessively aggressive even for this president. While Poor Sessions (see previous column) was practicing Spanish for “I have nothing against tattoos, but seriously?,” Trump was making a play in Ohio for tighter immigration by focusing on the gang’s murderous record.

And, lest we ignore the gold coin Trump magically pulled from his ear, the president randomly ordered transgender people out of the military. What, no women bleeding this week?

Health care, schmealth care, in other words. As buffer to the inevitable, Trump made sure to create a little sidebar drama — expelling thugs and transgender people, rooting out leakers and traitors, and threatening to fire anyone who says “Russia” in his presence.

So many shiny objects, so few left to fool.

A few Trump loyalists may wait for the last lifeboat, but it’s only a matter of time before this administration capsizes, titanically. Trump’s first-year agenda is DOA along with health-care reform. Going after Sessions has hurt the president with conservatives. His chaotic White House operation is a constant reminder that no one’s in charge. The cumulative effect of all of these affronts to normalcy, decorum and democracy is to reveal the profile of a deadly iceberg off the ship of state’s bow.

Light shifts to a small lifeboat off in the distance. Rowing slowly is an old man whose posture betrays a straight spine despite obvious injury to his arms and shoulders. A smile creases his face as moonlight catches a twinkle in his eye. A deep scar above it imitates a wryly arched brow. He chuckles at the memory of Trump saying he was a war hero only because he was captured and turns to make yet another final gesture.

This time, he doesn’t use his thumb.

The White House is imploding

Ruth Marcus, reporting for the Washington Post:

The Trump White House is imploding. The only real thing to debate in that sentence is the tense. “Has imploded” is certainly arguable. Still, as the events of the past few days have shown, implosion, in politics as in physics, is not a moment but a process. The damage continues. It builds on itself as the edifice collapses.

The temptation, of course, is to begin with Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and his profane rant against soon-to-be-former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

But the more powerful, more ominous evidence of implosion and its consequences is found in the collapse of congressional efforts to repeal/replace/do something, anything, with the Republican Party’s chief nemesis over the past seven years: the Affordable Care Act.

Who could have imagined, on the day after the election, or even on Inauguration Day, that this would end so ignominiously?

You might be asking why the Senate’s failure to move repeal forward, by a single vote in the early morning hours, signifies presidential weakness. Indeed, back in the days when Donald Trump’s election seemed fanciful even as the Republican Party prepared to award him the nomination, GOP lawmakers offered a soothing vision of a Trump presidency: They would navigate the policy differences and political chasms and emerge with legislation to be duly signed by the inexperienced, compliant president. Health care, check. Tax reform, check. And so on.

That it didn’t work out that way, or certainly hasn’t so far, is evidence, in part, of the unavoidable complexities of health-care reform and the ideological schisms within the party.

But it also illustrates a truism of modern American politics: Moving forward with a complicated or ambitious legislative agenda requires the propulsive force of presidential leadership. Troops do not perform effectively without a general at the helm, a leader they both respect and fear.

A master legislative tactician such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can get you only so far; the rules of the Senate make it easier for McConnell to block (see, for example, the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland) than to enact. A president distracted by infighting, inattentive to detail and sagging in the polls can announce all he wants that “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand.” No wobbly lawmaker is going to rally to that cry.

While health-care reform fizzled, Trump burned. First over his “weak” and “beleaguered” attorney general, then over the hapless, doomed-from-the-start Priebus. Will the president’s new choice for chief of staff, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, fare much better? Don’t count on it.

Daily, the president’s boundless anger seems to find a new target: He is variously unhappy with his lawyer/his strategist/his press secretary. There is always someone else for Trump to blame, never himself.

He constructed, enabled, even encouraged an organization lacking clear lines of authority and ridden with factions. “The fish stinks from the head down,” Scaramucci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and while he meant to attack Priebus, he was more on target than he intended. As dogs have an uncanny tendency to resemble their owners, so Scaramucci channels Trump — bullying, vulgar, egotistical and undisciplined. In a week on the job, he has achieved the impossible: making us yearn for Sean Spicer.

Every new White House has its rocky moments and personnel readjustments, some more than others. Every White House suffers from factionalism and infighting, to some degree. But Washington and the country have never seen anything like this. The truest — and scariest thing — that Scaramucci said on CNN was that “there are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.”

More here.