Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance

Michael S. Schmidt, reporting in the New York Times:

President Trump called the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.

Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department, according to those people.

After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the F.B.I.’s independence. At the time, Mr. Comey was overseeing the investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.

Those interactions included a dinner in which associates of Mr. Comey say Mr. Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty and a meeting in the Oval Office at which Mr. Trump told him he hoped Mr. Comey would shut down an investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Mr. Trump has denied making the request.

The day after the Flynn conversation, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, asked Mr. Comey to help push back on reports in the news media that Mr. Trump’s associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign.

Mr. Comey described all of his contacts with the president and the White House — including the phone call from Mr. Trump — in detailed memos he wrote at the time and gave to his aides. Congressional investigators have requested copies of the memos, which, according to two people who have read them, provide snapshots of a fraught relationship between a president trying to win over and influence an F.B.I. director and someone who had built his reputation on asserting his independence, sometimes in a dramatic way.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in a statement on Thursday that “the sworn testimony” of both Mr. Comey and Andrew G. McCabe, the F.B.I.’s acting director, “make clear that there was never any attempt to interfere in this investigation. As the president previously stated, he respects the ongoing investigations and will continue working to fulfill his promises to the American people.”

It is not clear whether in all their interactions Mr. Comey answered Mr. Trump’s question or if he ever told him whether he was under investigation. In the letter Mr. Trump sent to Mr. Comey last week in which he informed him that he had been fired, Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

The F.B.I.’s longest-serving director, J. Edgar Hoover, had close relationships with several presidents. But in the modern F.B.I., directors have sought an arm’s length relationship with the presidents they serve and have followed Justice Department guidelines outlining how the White House should have limited contact with the F.B.I.

Those guidelines, which also cover the F.B.I., prohibit conversations with the White House about active criminal investigations unless they are “important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.” When such conversations are necessary, only the attorney general or the deputy attorney general can initiate those discussions.

Mr. Comey has spoken privately of his concerns that the contacts from Mr. Trump and his aides were inappropriate, and how he felt compelled to resist them.

Much more here.

Trump, Back on Twitter, Complains of ‘Witch Hunt’

Mark Sandler, reporting for the New York Times:

President Trump lashed out Thursday at his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his former campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton, complaining that what he called “illegal acts” committed during their time in office never led to the appointment of a special counsel. He complained that he was the target of a witch hunt.

The morning after Mr. Trump’s Justice Department named Robert S. Mueller III, a former F.B.I. director, to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, Mr. Trump sent out a Twitter message making his case.

“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel appointed,” the message said, misspelling counsel.

Moments later, Mr. Trump added, “This is the greatest single witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

The posts, shortly before 8 a.m., were a stark contrast to his muted reaction to the announcement of Mr. Mueller’s appointment on Wednesday evening.

In a statement released by the White House, the president said, “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”

How Mr. Trump should respond to the appointment was the subject of brief, but lively debate in the Oval Office, several senior officials said, with most of the president’s aides counseling a conciliatory tone. Mr. Trump often takes his most combative stances in early morning Twitter posts.

The president is correct in his observation about the rarity of a special counsel, though his references to the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration may not bolster his case. There were multiple congressional investigations of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the role played by Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Obama.

How dangerous are the cracks emerging in Trump’s wall of support?

Marc Fisher, reporting for the Washington Post:

The world spins faster these days, but in Washington, as President Trump is now learning, the essential chemistry of crisis — quick to boil, difficult to dampen — hasn’t changed in four decades.

Tom Railsback, one of the last surviving members of the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard M. Nixon, recalls the moment he knew he and his party finally had to break with their wayward president. “I personally liked Richard Nixon,” said Railsback, a Republican from Illinois who is now 85. “He campaigned for me. But I reached a point — a number of us did — where we all felt that this was the most important decision of our lives.”

No such decision confronts ­Republicans in Congress or the administration right now, but within the president’s party this week, what had been a fairly solid wall of support has suddenly developed cracks — the latest being the appointment late Wednesday of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s role in Trump’s election. Are those cracks dangerous splits in the foundation of Trump’s support or merely cosmetic chinks that might be patched by, say, a successful presidential trip to Europe and the Middle East?

“The danger he faces is his own party, with a growing chorus of leading Republicans who want to distance themselves from Trump because he has the smell of a wounded animal,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who met with the president-elect at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., in December as Trump prepared to take office. “Right now, there aren’t many Republicans in Congress facing reelection who are going to want to be in photo opportunities with him. He’s a man without coattails.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) is old enough to recall watching Republicans turn against Nixon in the latter phases of the Watergate investigation. “What I’m worried about is, in the early 1970s, politicians like me were standing around saying, ‘Nixon’s okay; he didn’t do anything,’ and look what it led to,” said Simpson, who was in dental school as the Nixon presidency crumbled.

Now, with revelations dominating the news almost daily, “you find Republican politicians kind of a little leery about saying either they support Trump or ‘Oh, no, this is all made-up, fake news bulls— stuff,” Simpson said. “They’ve seen what’s happened in the past, and as long as this continues, it’s hard to stand behind him, I’ll tell you in all honesty.”

But where some see the start of a snowballing opposition, others caution that a momentary crisis does not necessarily imply collapse.

“I see the parallels with Watergate, but the differences are enormous,” said David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University who has written books on Nixon and the politics of media coverage. “We are so far from the mountain of evidence we had in the spring of 1973. Some Republicans feel it’s imperative now to furrow their brows about Trump’s behavior, but for the most part, they are still very much on board with him. We’re in the early stages, certainly not the endgame.”

In the Watergate scandal, hard evidence — including the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the discovery of Nixon’s White House taping system — as well as convictions of some of the president’s aides made it easier for Republicans to break with their president, Railsback said. He does not think that the crisis that has engulfed the Trump presidency has reached that point, but he viscerally recalls the feeling of collapsing confidence that led him and his fellow Republicans to discard core beliefs about loyalty and party discipline.

“It was easier then because things were a lot more nonpartisan, and in those days I had very good friends that were Democrats,” he said. “But there came a point when both parties had to tone down the rhetoric and look for the common good.”

On Capitol Hill and in the conservative media Wednesday, by word and by gesture, Republicans edged away from the president whose world-shaking election last fall had put them where they’d dreamed of being since 2007 — in charge of the whole kit and caboodle in Washington, finally in position to turn their ideas into action.

But after a whirlwind first hundred days of china-breaking rhetoric and frustratingly stalled progress on Trump’s biggest initiatives, this new presidency has become mired in the mud of scandal: The firing of the FBI director, who was leading an investigation into any role Russia may have played in Trump’s election. The president’s decision to share classified information with Russian officials. A report that Trump had asked FBI chief James B. Comey whether he might shut down an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Then, on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced the appointment of a special counsel, heightening the sense of an administration under siege.

Much more here.

The 25th Amendment Solution to Remove Trump

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times:

It was just three days and a lifetime ago that I wrote a column about Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency that affected a world-weary tone. Nothing about this White House’s chaos was surprising given the style of Trump’s campaign, I argued. None of the breaking scandals necessarily suggested high crimes as opposed to simple omni-incompetence. And given that Republicans made their peace with Trump’s unfitness many months ago, it seemed pointless to expect their leaders to move against him unless something far, far worse came out.

As I said, three days and a lifetime. If the G.O.P.’s surrender to candidate Trump made exhortations about Republican politicians’ duty to their country seem like so much pointless verbiage, now President Trump has managed to make exhortation seem unavoidable again.

He has done so, if several days’ worth of entirely credible leaks and revelations are to be believed, by demonstrating in a particularly egregious fashion why the question of “fitness” matters in the first place.

The presidency is not just another office. It has become, for good reasons and bad ones, a seat of semi-monarchical political power, a fixed place on which unimaginable pressures are daily brought to bear, and the final stopping point for decisions that can lead very swiftly to life or death for people the world over.

One does not need to be a Marvel superhero or Nietzschean Übermensch to rise to this responsibility. But one needs some basic attributes: a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. And if a president is deficient in one or more of them, you can be sure it will be exposed.

Trump is seemingly deficient in them all. Some he perhaps never had, others have presumably atrophied with age. He certainly has political talent — charisma, a raw cunning, an instinct for the jugular, a form of the common touch, a certain creativity that normal politicians lack. He would not have been elected without these qualities. But they are not enough, they cannot fill the void where other, very normal human gifts should be.

There is, as my colleague David Brooks wrote Tuesday, a basic childishness to the man who now occupies the presidency. That is the simplest way of understanding what has come tumbling into light in the last few days: The presidency now has kinglike qualities, and we have a child upon the throne.

It is a child who blurts out classified information in order to impress distinguished visitors. It is a child who asks the head of the F.B.I. why the rules cannot be suspended for his friend and ally. It is a child who does not understand the obvious consequences of his more vindictive actions — like firing the very same man whom you had asked to potentially obstruct justice on your say-so.

A child cannot be president. I love my children; they cannot have the nuclear codes.

But a child also cannot really commit “high crimes and misdemeanors” in any usual meaning of the term. There will be more talk of impeachment now, more talk of a special prosecutor for the Russia business; well and good. But ultimately I do not believe that our president sufficiently understands the nature of the office that he holds, the nature of the legal constraints that are supposed to bind him, perhaps even the nature of normal human interactions, to be guilty of obstruction of justice in the Nixonian or even Clintonian sense of the phrase. I do not believe he is really capable of the behind-the-scenes conspiring that the darker Russia theories envision. And it is hard to betray an oath of office whose obligations you evince no sign of really understanding or respecting.

Which is not an argument for allowing him to occupy that office. It is an argument, instead, for using a constitutional mechanism more appropriate to this strange situation than impeachment: the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and (should the president contest his own removal) a two-thirds vote by Congress confirms the cabinet’s judgment.

The Trump situation is not exactly the sort that the amendment’s Cold War-era designers were envisioning. He has not endured an assassination attempt or suffered a stroke or fallen prey to Alzheimer’s. But his incapacity to really govern, to truly execute the serious duties that fall to him to carry out, is nevertheless testified to daily — not by his enemies or external critics, but by precisely the men and women whom the Constitution asks to stand in judgment on him, the men and women who serve around him in the White House and the cabinet.

Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.

It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration.

This will not get better. It could easily get worse. And as hard and controversial as a 25th Amendment remedy would be, there are ways in which Trump’s removal today should be less painful for conservatives than abandoning him in the campaign would have been — since Hillary Clinton will not be retroactively elected if Trump is removed, nor will Neil Gorsuch be unseated. Any cost to Republicans will be counted in internal divisions and future primary challenges, not in immediate policy defeats.

More here.

At a Besieged White House, Tempers Flare and Confusion Swirls

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, reporting for the New York Times:

The bad-news stories slammed into the White House in pitiless succession on Tuesday, leaving President Trump’s battle-scarred West Wing aides staring at their flat screens in glassy-eyed shock.

The disclosure that Mr. Trump divulged classified intelligence to Russian officials that had been provided by Israel was another blow to a besieged White House staff recovering from the mishandled firing of James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director.

And the day was capped by the even more stunning revelation that the president had prodded Mr. Comey to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser. That prompted a stampede of reporters from the White House briefing room into the lower press gallery of the White House, where Mr. Trump’s first-line defenders had few answers but an abundance of anxieties about their job security.

The president’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, has left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, and he has turned against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.

As the maelstrom raged around the staff, reports swirled inside the White House that the president was about to embark on a major shake-up, probably starting with the dismissal or reassignment of Sean Spicer, the press secretary.

Mr. Trump’s rattled staff kept close tabs on a meeting early Monday in which the president summoned Mr. Spicer; the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and the communications director, Michael Dubke, to lecture them on the need “to get on the same page,” according to a person briefed on the meeting.

By the end of the day Tuesday, it seemed that Mr. Spicer had, for the moment, survived. People close to the president said Mr. Trump was considering the firing of several lower-level staff members, including several hired by Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, while weighing a plan to hand most day-to-day briefing responsibilities to Ms. Sanders.

Even as Mr. Trump reassured advisers like Mr. Spicer that their jobs were safe on Monday, he told other advisers that he knew he needed to make big changes but did not know which direction to go, or whom to select.

In the meantime, the White House hunkered down for what staff members now realize will be an extended siege, not a one- or two-day bad news cycle.

The stress was taking its toll. Late Monday, reporters could hear senior aides shouting from behind closed doors as they discussed how to respond after Washington Post reporters informed them of an article they were writing that first reported the news about the president’s divulging of intelligence.

As they struggled to limit the fallout on Monday, Mr. Spicer and other Trump aides decided to send Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to serve as a surrogate.

They realized that selecting such a high-ranking official would in some ways validate the story, but they wanted to establish a credible witness account exonerating the president from wrongdoing — before the barrage of Twitter posts they knew would be coming from Mr. Trump on Tuesday morning.

Much more here.

As Trump’s woes mount, congressional Republicans arrive at a moment of reckoning

Dan Balz, reporting in the Washington Post:

As President Trump has lurched from one crisis to another, Republicans have chosen a strategy of compartmentalization over confrontation, preferring to look away in hopes that the storm would pass. Now, after a pair of stunning revelations about the president, that approach may have run aground. For the GOP, this has become a moment of reckoning.

Events of the past eight days have robbed Republicans of the luxury of trying to keep focused on their agenda while believing that a sense of calm and normalcy will eventually settle around the president and his White House. Reality long has suggested something different, and cascading events have driven home that this president operates under a new definition of normal.

Last week brought the unexpected firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and shifting explanations of the reasons. On Monday, The Washington Post dropped another bombshell, reporting that Trump has shared highly classified intelligence with Russian officials. As the White House went into full damage control over that revelation on Tuesday, the New York Times published another stunner, reporting that in February the president sought to persuade Comey to back off the FBI investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The successive blows have shifted — or more accurately expanded — the focus beyond the president. Increasingly, it will be difficult for Republicans to avoid recognizing the responsibility that comes with being the majority party in separate branch of government, rather than seeing events primarily through the prism of a political alliance, no matter how awkward at times, between members of Congress and a president who won the November election as their nominee.

In that context, the reaction of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to the news that Trump had shared intelligence with the Russians was telling. Corker has been, generally, restrained in his criticism of the president. In this case, he sent a message to the White House that reflected exasperation that must be widespread within the president’s party.

“Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” he said of the operations of the White House and senior officials around the president. “And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place.”

Republicans desperately have wanted this to be a mutually beneficial relationship. They have a big policy agenda they want to see turned into law. They want to move on health care and taxes, government regulations and budget priorities. They waited through the last years of the previous administration for the opportunity to hold all the levers of power. Now that they have the power, they want to do as much as they can as quickly as they can to undo what President Barack Obama did and to advance a series of long-sought conservative policies.

Up to now, the calculus has been easy, if somewhat strained. To pursue a course of confrontation or conflict with the president — whether over Trump’s evidence-free claims that Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower or of unprecedented electoral fraud — was, in the estimation of many Republicans, counterproductive.

On big matters, such as the report about Trump sharing intelligence with the Russians that was provided by a key ally, Republicans have reacted with shock but not condemnation. They have hoped to create some distance while avoiding building barriers with a volatile president who came to office largely independent of the party he claims as his own.

When the president tweets something provocative, they prefer not to give the fire more oxygen. But the regularity of these fires is taking its toll. On Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed his frustration in the way he often does, through understatement. “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so we can focus on our agenda,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

That was before the Times’ report, widely confirmed by other news organizations, that Comey had made a memo of a Feb. 14 conversation with the president in which Trump had said of the Flynn investigation, “I hope you can let this go.” That meeting came a day after an apparently conflicted Trump fired his national security adviser, who had been one of his most loyal acolytes during the campaign, for misleading Vice President Pence about contacts with the Russian ambassador.

The White House has denied the report, just as it attempted to dismiss the Post story about the president’s sharing intelligence with the Russians. But as with the firing of Comey a week ago, White House officials have offered shifting explanations of what happened in the Oval Office meeting with Russian officials last week and provided a denial that was anything but an outright repudiation of what had been reported.

More here.

Notes made by former FBI director Comey say Trump pressured him to end Flynn probe

Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima, and Matt Zapotosky, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump asked the FBI to drop its probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and urged former FBI director James B. Comey instead to pursue reporters in leak cases, according to associates of Comey who have seen private notes he wrote recounting the conversation.

According to the notes written by Comey following a February meeting with the president, Trump brought up the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn and urged Comey to drop the probe in the wake of the national security adviser’s resignation.

The conversation between Trump and Comey took place after a national security meeting. The president asked to speak privately to the FBI director, and the others left the room, according to the Comey associates, who, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal internal discussions.

“I hope you can let this go,’’ Trump said, according to the Comey notes, which were described by the associates. Comey’s written account of the meeting is two pages long and highly detailed, the associates said.

The conversation described in the notes raises new questions about whether Trump may have crossed any legal lines into criminal behavior by pressuring the FBI to end an investigation.

“There’s definitely a case to be made for obstruction,” said Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who now does white-collar-defense work at the Perkins Coie law firm in the District. “But, on the other hand, you have to realize that — as with any other sort of criminal law — intent is key, and intent here can be difficult to prove.”

The revelation also marks the second major challenge for the White House this week, coming just a day after a report in The Washington Post that the president disclosed highly classified information to Russian diplomats during a private meeting last week at the White House. And it comes at a particularly precarious time for the Trump administration as it searches for someone to nominate to succeed Comey as the next leader of the FBI — the official who will take over investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any coordination between Trump associates and Russian officials.

Comey’s account of the February talk made it clear that his understanding of the conversation was that the president was seeking to impede the investigation, according to people who have read the account or had it read to them. Comey’s notes also made it clear he felt that the conversation with the president was improper and decided to withhold details of it from the case agents working on the Russia probe, according to the associates.

The details of Comey’s meeting notes were first reported by the New York Times.

According to the director’s notes, Comey did not respond directly to the president’s entreaties, only agreeing with Trump’s assertion that Flynn “is a good guy.’’ The notes also described how the president said that he wanted to see reporters in jail for leaks and expressed his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as the FBI’s inaction in pursuing whoever leaked his conversations with foreign leaders, according to Comey associates.

Current and former officials have described ongoing tensions between the Trump administration and the FBI over the issue of the Russia probe and leaks. The president and others have repeatedly pressed the FBI to focus more of its energy on pursuing leakers than on the Russia investigation, these officials said. While the FBI is investigating disclosures of classified information, other issues that Trump and the administration wanted to be investigated did not involve classified information, and FBI officials have resisted demands that they pursue such issues.

Details of Comey’s notes have been shared with a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department, these people said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman and an FBI spokesman declined to comment.

A White House statement denied the version of the conversation described by those who had seen Comey’s notes, saying “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end an investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. . . . This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.’’

Democrats reacted sharply to the news, calling for Comey to testify about what he knows.

“If true, this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation,’’ said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He said Comey “should come back to the Congress and share with us what he knows in terms of the president’s conversations with him on any of the Russian investigations.’’

Much more here.

Israel Said to Be Source of Secret Intelligence Trump Disclosed to Russians

Adam Goldman, Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo, writing in the New York Times:

The classified intelligence that President Trump disclosed in a meeting last week with Russian officials at the White House was provided by Israel, according to a current and a former American official familiar with how the United States obtained the information. The revelation adds a potential diplomatic complication to the episode.

Israel is one of the United States’ most important allies and a major intelligence collector in the Middle East. The revelation that Mr. Trump boasted about some of Israel’s most sensitive information to the Russians could damage the relationship between the two countries. It also raises the possibility that the information could be passed to Iran, Russia’s close ally and Israel’s main threat in the Middle East.

Israeli officials would not confirm that they were the source of the information that Mr. Trump shared. In a statement emailed to The New York Times, Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, reaffirmed that the two countries would maintain a close counterterrorism relationship.

“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” Mr. Dermer said.

In the meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, Mr. Trump disclosed intelligence about an Islamic State terrorist plot. At least some of the details that the United States has about the plot came from the Israelis, the officials said.

The officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Israel previously had urged the United States to be careful about the handling of the intelligence that Mr. Trump discussed.

Mr. Trump said on Tuesday on Twitter that he had an “absolute right” to share information in the interest of fighting terrorism and called it a “very, very successful meeting” in a brief appearance later Tuesday at the White House alongside President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, told reporters that he was not concerned that information sharing among intelligence partners would stop.

More here.

When the World Is Led by a Child

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.

First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.

His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.

“In a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care,” he told Time. “A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he told The Associated Press, referring to his joint session speech.

By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase “priming the pump” (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.

But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

More here.

Trump acknowledges ‘facts’ shared with Russian envoys during White House meeting

Ashley Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump appeared to acknowledge Tuesday that he revealed highly classified information to Russia — a stunning confirmation of a Washington Post story and a move that contradicted his own White House team after it scrambled to deny the report.

Trump’s tweets tried to explain away the news, which emerged late Monday, that he had shared sensitive, “code-word” information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during a White House meeting last week, a disclosure that intelligence officials warned could jeopardize a crucial intelligence source on the Islamic State.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote Tuesday morning. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

Trump’s tweets undercut his administration’s frantic effort Monday night to contain the damaging report. The White House trotted out three senior administration officials — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — to attack the reports.

The president’s admission also follows a familiar pattern. Last week, after firing FBI director James B. Comey, the White House originally claimed that the president was acting in response to a memo provided by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.

But in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump later admitted that he had made the decision to fire Comey well before Rosenstein’s memo, in part because he was frustrated by the director’s investigation into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russian government.

At the time, Trump was surprised by the almost universal bipartisan backlash to his decision, and raged at his staff, threatening to shake-up his already tumultuous West Wing. His communications team — Communications Director Mike Dubke and press secretary Sean Spicer — bore the brunt of the president’s ire.

On Monday night, following The Washington Post story, the president again was frustrated with Dubke and Spicer, according to someone with knowledge of the situation.

But his decision Tuesday to undermine his own West Wing staff in a series of tweets is unlikely to help him bring stability to his chaotic administration, just days before he departs on a 10-day trip abroad.

Because the president has broad authority to declassify information, it is unlikely his disclosures to the Russians were illegal — as they would have been had just about anyone else in government shared the same secrets. But the classified information he shared with a geopolitical foe was nonetheless explosive, having been provided by a critical U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so delicate that some details were withheld even from top allies and other government officials.

More here.

Lawmakers express shock and concern about Trump disclosure of classified information

Elise Viebeck, Mike DeBonis and Ed Okeefe, reporting for the Washington Post:

Lawmakers expressed shock and concern after learning that President Trump had revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during a meeting in the Oval Office last week, according to current and former U.S. officials.

“Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said of the Trump administration.

“The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment,” he said.

Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State, according to the officials. The information Trump relayed, officials said, had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.

The news created a sensation as it spread through Washington and up to Capitol Hill on Monday, where senators were returning for evening votes.

“If the report is true, it is very disturbing,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “Revealing classified information at this level is extremely dangerous and puts at risk the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country. The President owes the intelligence community, the American people, and Congress a full explanation.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) emphasized the importance of safeguarding sensitive intelligence.

“We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration,” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said in a statement.

The revelation came at a sensitive time for the president, who less than a week ago cited “this Russia thing with Trump” in explaining why he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, who was leading an investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election. Investigators are already probing possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, and the president has struggled to shake the issue as he tries to advance his legislative agenda.

The news is likely to raise questions on Capitol Hill about Trump’s handling of classified information. It could also increase pressure on investigators looking into Trump’s possible ties to the Kremlin.

And it could pull attention away from Republicans’ policy priorities this week. The Senate GOP is working to hammer out the details of a health-care plan, and the House is returning from a one-week break.

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called the news a “slap in the face to the intel community.”

“Risking sources and methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) tweeted around 6 p.m.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the panel, said the report was of the “gravest possible concern.”

“This kind of disclosure could harm national security by jeopardizing important sources of information needed to disrupt terrorist attacks,” Wyden said in a statement.

In Moscow, a Russian Foreign Minister spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, posted a statement on Facebook denying that classified information was provided by Trump, calling the reports “yet another fake.” But denials by Moscow were expected to avoid being pressed for further details.

As senators gathered for their first vote of the week, Republicans and Democrats said they were worried about the developing story. The House was not in session Monday evening.

“Pretty terrifying,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “If true, it is astonishing, appalling and should be investigated. It was astonishing and absolutely surprising. I would never have imagined the chief executive of our great nation would undertake that kind of disclosure.”

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said, “I would be concerned anytime we’re discussing sensitive subjects with the Russians.” Thune reacted after an initial briefing on the news report and said he had not reviewed details.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he’d only heard the basics of the report but called them “very serious.” He noted that fewer than 25 senators are ever given access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets and he learns things he “can’t even talk about with other senators.”

If the reports are true, “it’s very damning, very damaging,” Manchin said, adding that such disclosures “would be extremely dangerous and concerning to all.”

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said had he just read The Post story and, “if true, that would be genuinely shocking.”

“It’s disturbing if true,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.

Several senators said they did not know the details of The Post report but called the news troubling nonetheless.

“This is not the appropriate move on his part, and I just think it’s part of a pattern of recklessness that we’ve got to get a handle on,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information, but the president does have the right to do that … I think any president needs to be careful.”

About a dozen reporters continued to stake out a bipartisan health-care meeting around 7 p.m., intent on asking questions about Trump. The scene was reminiscent of the prior week, when Capitol Hill was consumed by news of Comey’s firing.

McCain, clearly flustered by reporters pressing for answers, walked off the Senate floor and said he hadn’t read the reports, adding, “I can’t comment on every breaking news story.”

Later, he said: “That’s why it’s classified. They have a reason to classify it, okay? And when they say it’s classified, if it was public knowledge, then it could hurt the national security of the United States. That’s why we classify.” He said the news would be “disturbing” if true.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was silent as he walked from his office to the Senate floor. Asked how concerned he was about Trump sharing information with Russian officials, he looked straight ahead, offering no reaction.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the Republican whip and a candidate to replace Comey as FBI director, said he didn’t have “any information about that at all.”

“I’m just not going to answer a hypothetical question,” he told reporters.

Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador

Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said that Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information Trump relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said that Trump’s decision to do so risks cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and National Security Agency.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

The revelation comes as Trump faces rising legal and political pressure on multiple Russia-related fronts. Last week, he fired FBI Director James B. Comey in the midst of a bureau investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Trump’s subsequent admission that his decision was driven by “this Russia thing” was seen by critics as attempted obstruction of justice.

[Political chaos in Washington is a return on investment in Moscow]

One day after dismissing Comey, Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — a key figure in earlier Russia controversies — into the Oval Office. It was during that meeting, officials said, that Trump went off script and began describing details about an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

For most anyone in government discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal. As president, Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.

“The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” said H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who participated in the meeting. “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”

The CIA declined to comment and the National Security Agency did not respond to requests for comment.

But officials expressed concern with Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences. Exposure of an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State, they said, could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats.

“It is all kind of shocking,” said a former senior U.S. official close to current administration officials. “Trump seems to be very reckless, and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”

In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump seemed to be boasting about his inside knowledge of the looming threat. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” Trump said, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States only learned through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence gathering method, but described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.

The Washington Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.

“Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also worked closely with members of the Trump national security team. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject.

The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said that the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow and would be keenly interested in identifying that source and possibly disrupting it.

Russia and the United States both regard the Islamic State as an enemy and share limited information about terrorist threats. But the two nations have competing agendas in Syria, where Moscow has deployed military assets and personnel to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Russia could identify our sources or techniques,” the senior U.S. official said. A former intelligence official who handled high-level intelligence on Russia said that given the clues Trump provided, “I don’t think that it would be that hard [for Russian spy services] to figure this out.”

At a more fundamental level, the information wasn’t the United States’ to provide to others. Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.

The officials declined to identify the ally, but said it is one that has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.

“If that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first that is a blow to that relationship,” the U.S. official said.

Trump also described measures that the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threat, including military operations in Iraq and Syria as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said.

The officials would not discuss details of those measures, but the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed that it is considering banning laptops and other large electronic devices from carry-on bags on flights between Europe and the United States. The United States and Britain imposed a similar ban in March affecting travelers passing through airports in 10 Muslim-majority countries.

Trump cast the countermeasures in wistful terms. “Can you believe the world we live in today?” he said, according to one official. “Isn’t it crazy.”

Lavrov and Kislyak were also accompanied by aides.

A Russian photographer took photos of part of the session that were released by the Russian state-owned Tass news agency. No U.S. news organization was allowed to attend any part of the meeting.

Senior White House officials appeared to recognize quickly that Trump had overstepped and moved to contain the potential fallout.

Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, placed calls to the directors of the CIA and the NSA, services most directly involved in the intelligence-sharing arrangement with the partner.

One of Bossert’s subordinates also called for the problematic portion of Trump’s discussion to be stricken from internal memos and for the full transcript to be limited to a small circle of recipients, efforts to prevent sensitive details from being disseminated further or leaked.

Trump has repeatedly gone off-script in his dealings with high-ranking foreign officials, most notably in his contentious introductory conversation with the Australian Prime Minister earlier this year. He has also faced criticism for lax attention to security at his Florida retreat Mar-a-Lago, where he appeared to field preliminary reports of a North Korea missile launch in full view of casual diners.

U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points, and often ignores those.

“He seems to get in the room or on the phone and just goes with it — and that has big downsides,” the second former official said. “Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not? That’s what worries me.”

Lavrov’s reaction to the Trump disclosures was muted, officials said, calling for the United States to work more closely with Moscow on fighting terrorism.

Kislyak has figured prominently in damaging stories about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Trump’s initial national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign just 24 days into the job over his contacts with Kislyak and misleading statements about them. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from matters related to the FBI’s Russia investigation after it was revealed that he had met and spoke with Kislyak despite denying any contact with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing.

“I’m sure Kislyak was able to fire off a good cable back to the Kremlin with all the details” he gleaned from Trump, said the former U.S. official who handled intelligence on Russia.

The White House readout of the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak made no mention of the discussion of a terrorist threat.

“Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria,” the summary said. Trump also “raised Ukraine” and “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Republicans and Democrats agree: If Trump has tapes, he’ll need to turn them over to Congress

Ed O’Keefe and Jenna Johnson, reporting for the Washington Post:

In the six days since President Trump abruptly fired FBI director James B. Comey, concern from both parties has mounted about the selection of a replacement and the president’s suggestion that he may have secretly taped conversations with the ousted director.

Key Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Sunday called for Trump to turn over any recorded conversations, based on a tantalizing tweet the president sent last week that said, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

“If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” underscoring a strong bipartisan reaction to the suggestion of White House tapes.

Democrats continued Sunday to call for appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the FBI investigation into whether Trump’s campaign knew of Russian interference in the 2016 election. And after a parade of eight candidates appeared at the Justice Department for interviews, members of Congress began voicing their preferences for Comey ‘s replacement.

After a week of turmoil, none of Trump’s top aides appeared on the major Sunday morning news shows to defend and explain the president’s decision. Host Chris Wallace opened “Fox News Sunday” by highlighting who was not on his guest list, saying that the White House would not make anyone available to discuss the Comey firing.

Trump slipped away to his private golf course in Virginia, where aides said he planned to make calls, have lunch and perhaps hit a few golf balls.

The bipartisan calls for more White House disclosures came as an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that just 29 percent of Americans said they approve of Comey’s firing; 38 percent said they disapprove. About 32 percent of respondents said they didn’t have enough information to answer. But among those who have been paying “a lot” of attention to the firing, 53 percent said they disapprove; 33 percent approved.

On Capitol Hill, where the House will return Monday after a recess, members continued to disagree about the need for a special prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation. The inquiry was one of the triggers for Trump’s displeasure with Comey, who he said was a “showboat” seeking media attention.

On NBC, Graham dismissed calls for a special prosecutor or independent commission. “It’s not a criminal investigation. I see no need for a special commission yet,” he said.

But Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told CNN that many Democratic senators support blocking Trump’s nominee for FBI director until the Justice Department names a special prosecutor.

“We will have to discuss it as a caucus, but I would support that move, because who the FBI director is is related to who the special prosecutor is,” Schumer said. noting that Warner, whose committee is also conducting a Russia probe, also supports a special prosecutor.

His threat to block Trump’s pick may be a bit toothless: Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate, and a rules change made in 2013 by Democrats means that whoever Trump nominates requires a simple majority vote to be confirmed. But the Democratic leader’s comments signal that any Trump pick is likely to face a politically charged confirmation fight.

Much more here.

G.O.P. Senators, Pulling Away From Trump, Have ‘a Lot Less Fear of Him’

Jennifer Steinhauer, reporting for the New York Times:

Senate Republicans, increasingly unnerved by President Trump’s volatility and unpopularity, are starting to show signs of breaking away from him as they try to forge a more traditional Republican agenda and protect their political fortunes.

Several Republicans have openly questioned Mr. Trump’s decision to fire the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and even lawmakers who supported the move have complained privately that it was poorly timed and disruptive to their work. Many were dismayed when Mr. Trump seemed to then threaten Mr. Comey not to leak negative information about him.

As they pursue their own agenda, Republican senators are drafting a health care bill with little White House input, seeking to avoid the public relations pitfalls that befell the House as it passed its own deeply unpopular version. Republicans are also pushing back on the president’s impending budget request — including, notably, a provision that would nearly eliminate funding for the national drug control office amid an opioid epidemic. And many high-ranking Republicans have said they will not support any move by Mr. Trump to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So far, Republicans have refrained from bucking the president en masse, in part to avoid undermining their intense push to put health care and tax bills on his desk this year. And the Republican leadership, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, remains behind Mr. Trump.

But with the White House lurching from crisis to crisis, the president is hampering Republicans’ efforts to fulfill his promises.

“All the work that goes into getting big things done is hard enough even in the most tranquil of environments in Washington,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican operative who worked for John A. Boehner when he was the House speaker. “But distractions like these can become a serious obstacle to aligning the interests of Congress.”

When Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party, lawmakers usually try to use the full weight of the presidency to achieve legislative priorities, through a clear and coordinated vision, patience with intransigent lawmakers and message repetition. Mr. Trump’s transient use of his bully pulpit for policy messaging has upended that playbook.

“It does seem like we have an upheaval, a crisis almost every day in Washington that changes the subject,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who has been trying to advance health care legislation, said in a television interview on Thursday night.

The latest subject-changing crisis has been the fallout from Mr. Trump’s sudden dismissal of Mr. Comey, who was leading the F.B.I.’s investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mr. Trump suggested last week that he might have surreptitiously taped his conversations with Mr. Comey, and on Sunday two Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said the president should turn over any such tapes, if they exist.

* * *

In the days after Mr. Trump’s election victory, the mood was different, as Republicans expressed high hopes that they could move quickly on a conservative agenda that merged with Mr. Trump’s. “We’re going to be an enthusiastic supporter almost all the time,” Mr. McConnell said of Mr. Trump in November.

But Republicans have so far achieved few of their legislative priorities, like repealing the Affordable Care Act or cutting taxes. When Mr. Trump suggested this month that the Senate should change its rules to make it easier for Republicans to push bills through, Mr. McConnell firmly rejected the idea.

Lawmakers are also bucking the president by pushing ahead with bipartisan measures on sanctions against Russia. And this month, Republicans rejected many of the administration’s priorities in a short-term spending measure, including money for a wall along the border with Mexico.

Two Republican senators who face potentially tough re-election fights next year — Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona — have been unabashed in their criticism of Mr. Trump and his administration, which they have clearly begun to view as a drag on their political prospects.

“In Arizona, we grow them independent,” Mr. Flake said, noting the unpopularity in his state of Mr. Trump’s views on the border wall and Nafta. “I expect people want someone who will say, ‘I’m voting with Trump on the good stuff and standing up to him on the not good stuff.’”

Some Republicans, like Mr. Ryan, have preferred to keep the focus firmly on the good stuff. Mr. Ryan has remained in harmony with the president, last month calling him “a driven, hands-on leader, with the potential to become a truly transformational American figure.”

Much more here.