Contradicting Trump on Russia: Russian Officials

Matthew Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times:

For months, President Trump and his aides have insisted that they had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, a denial Mr. Trump repeated last week.

“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he told reporters on Thursday. “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”

The denial stands at odds with statements by Russian officials, who have at least twice acknowledged contacts with aides to Mr. Trump before the election.

It is not uncommon for a presidential campaign to speak to foreign officials, which makes the dispute particularly unusual. At the same time, any contacts would have taken place during a period when American intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was trying to disrupt the election with a campaign of computer hacking.

The dispute began two days after the Nov. 8 election, when Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said his government had maintained contacts with members of Mr. Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.

“I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said during an interview with the Interfax news agency.

Mr. Ryabkov’s comments were met with a swift denial from Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump and now a member of the White House press team.

More recently, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, told The Washington Post that he had communicated frequently during the campaign with Michael T. Flynn, a close campaign adviser to Mr. Trump who became the president’s national security adviser before resigning from the position last week.

“It’s something all diplomats do,” The Post quoted Mr. Kislyak as saying, though he refused to say what subjects they discussed.

Mr. Trump and his aides denied any contacts occurred during the campaign.

“This is a nonstory because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Monday.

The Russian government did not respond to a message over the weekend seeking comment.

Separately, The New York Times and other news outlets reported last week that Trump campaign advisers and other associates of Mr. Trump’s had repeated contacts last year with Russian intelligence officials. Those reports, citing anonymous current and former American government officials, were vigorously denied by the White House.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump made clear his annoyance when questioned about contacts with Russia.

“How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said during a White House news conference.

More here.

Trapped in Trump’s Brain

Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times:

Donald Trump is stuck in his own skull.

He’s unreachable.

“He lives inside his head, where he runs the same continuous loop of conflict with people he turns into enemies for the purposes of his psychodrama,” says Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio.

Because Trump holds Thor’s hammer, with its notably short handle, we must keep trying to figure out his strange, perverse, aggrieved style of reasoning. So we’re stuck in Trump’s head with him.

It’s a very cluttered place to be, a fine-tuned machine spewing a torrent of chaos, cruelty, confusion, farce and transfixing craziness. Of course, this is merely the observation of someone who is “the enemy of the American people,” according to our president.

President Trump likes maps. Once it was John King’s analysis of the CNN electoral map that Trump obsessed over. Now he wants policy papers heavy on maps and graphics and not dense with boring words.

So let’s visualize those phrenology skulls mapping distinct faculties in the brain, the ones that spur chastity, sympathy, philanthropy, philoprogenitiveness, mirthfulness, sincerity, grace, morality, generosity, kindness, benevolence.

Then think of the president’s skull, which is stuffed with other humours: insecurity, insincerity, victimhood, paranoia, mockery, self-delusion, suspicion, calculation, illogic, vindictiveness, risk, bullying, alimentiveness, approbativeness, vitativeness. Gall, divided into three parts.

It seems that at some point Trump decided that he didn’t really trust anyone else. While that was a reasonable strategy for a New York real estate developer who was always trying to rip off so-called partners, it’s obviously a limitation when you’re president.

Like all narcissists, he doesn’t like to be told if he’s screwing up, so he surrounds himself with people who don’t tell him.

The president is still oblivious about the shudder that went through the land, beyond the base that likes seeing the press jackals flayed, during his gobsmacking 77-minute masterpiece of performance art in the White House Thursday.

It was more Norma Desmond than Norman Vincent Peale, the Trump family pastor who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking” and influenced Donald’s thinking as a child.

If Trump is the swanning, aging diva in the mansion, trapped in a musty miasma, Steve Bannon must be Max, the German director turned butler who massages Norma’s ego. In “Sunset Hair Boulevard,” Bannon is the one who encourages his diva to cling to a delusional world where she is still big and Jeff Zucker and Chuck Schumer are lightweights.

Much more here.

Last night in Sweden

Donald Trump, during yesterday’s rally, said:

“You look at what’s happening,” he told his supporters. “We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”

The Swedes are at a loss about what he said.

Via the New York Times:

Nothing particularly nefarious happened in Sweden on Friday — or Saturday, for that matter — and Swedes were left baffled.

“Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound,” Carl Bildt, a former prime minister and foreign minister, wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Trump did not state, per se, that a terrorist attack had taken place in Sweden.

But the context of his remarks — he mentioned Sweden right after he chastised Germany, a destination for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and deprivation — clearly suggested that he thought something awful had happened.

“Sweden,” he said. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe.”

Contrary to Mr. Trump’s allegations, nearly all of the men involved in terrorist assaults in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, in Brussels on March 22 last year, and in Nice, France, on July 14, were citizens of France or Belgium.

As the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet noted, Twitter users were quick to ridicule Mr. Trump’s remark, with joking references to the Swedish Chef, the “Muppets” character; Swedish meatballs; and Ikea, the furniture giant.

Others speculated that Mr. Trump might have been influenced by a Fox News interview of Ami Horowitz, a filmmaker who asserts that migrants in Sweden have been associated with an increase in crime, by the correspondent Tucker Carlson. “They often times try to cover up some of these crimes,” Mr. Horowitz said, arguing that those who try to tell the truth about the situation are shouted down as racists and xenophobes.

(Mr. Carlson interjected: “The masochism of the West knows no bounds at all.”)

Mr. Horowitz said, “Sweden had its first terrorist Islamic attack not that long ago, so they’re now getting a taste of what we’ve been seeing across Europe already.”

It was not clear what he was referring to. In 2010, a suicide bomber struck central Stockholm, injuring two people. The bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, 28, was an Iraqi-born Swede who had developed an affinity for Al Qaeda. But that attack occurred long before the current wave of migrants fleeing war and deprivation.

More here.

New York Times fact checks Trump’s rally

Linda Qiu, fact checking for the New York Times:

Mr. Trump warned that refugees coming into the United States are not screened.

“We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country. There was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation, there was no nothing.”

Refugees are vetted, and it takes two years.

Mr. Trump repeatedly made this inaccurate claim during the 2016 campaign, and it is still inaccurate. The country’s vetting system for refugees, which begins at the United Nations, is extensive.

Applicants undergo several rounds of background and biometric checks — fingerprints and retina scans, for example — by multiple federal immigration and intelligence agencies. The system is not foolproof, and intelligence officials have raised concerns about gaps in data collection on people coming from conflict zones like Syria.

Mr. Trump claimed that Americans are optimistic about the future.

“Look at what’s happening in every poll when it comes to optimism in our country.”

Some polls show optimism, others don’t.

In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Trump’s election, the majority of voters expressed optimism about the next four years in several respected polls. But the results have varied in more recent months: 53 percent said they were optimistic in a Quinnipiac University poll, while 54 percent said they were pessimistic or uncertain in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

According to Gallup’s weekly economic optimism poll, Americans are slightly less confident in the economy in February than they were in January. In other Gallup polls, Mr. Trump’s approval rating and Americans’ view of the country’s standing in the world are the lowest in decades.

Mr. Trump extolled an increase in jobs.

“Jobs are already starting to pour back in. They’re coming back in like you haven’t seen in a long time.”

Data shows modest gains so far.

The economy added 227,000 jobs in January 2017, a healthy but less than record increase, more likely attributable to the ending days of the Obama administration than the incoming president. And the unemployment rate “was little changed,” remaining at 4.8 percent for January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s 0.1 percent higher than it was the previous month.

Mr. Trump alluded to high crime in Chicago and the country at large.

“Look at what’s happening in Chicago — hundreds of shootings, hundreds of deaths. I’ll tell you what’s happening in Chicago, and many other places.”

Crime is high in Chicago, but it has generally declined.

Mr. Trump warned of soaring levels of crime during the 2016 election, ignoring data. Chicago did experience a surge in homicides last year, with more than 750 people murdered. The country’s third-largest city, along with three other urban areas, contributed to a jump in the national murder rate in 2016. But over all, both violent crime and property crime have fallen since the early 1990s.

How could things get worse for Trump?

Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post:

President Trump is flailing like a man who fears he’s about to go under, and he hasn’t even been in office a full month. His instinct is to flee to the warmth and comfort of his political base — but he will learn that while presidents can run, they can’t hide.

Trump’s administration faces two acute, interlocking crises: serious questions about his campaign’s contacts with official and unofficial representatives of the Russian government, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe made concerted efforts to help Trump win the election; and appalling levels of dysfunction in the White House that make self-inflicted wounds the rule rather than the exception.

The president’s response has been to rant on Twitter and schedule a campaign-style rally Saturday in Florida — both of which may boost Trump’s morale but will do nothing to make his problems go away.

It is unclear whether Trump is trying to fool the nation or fool himself. Witness one of the angry tweets he sent out Thursday morning: “The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story — RUSSIA. Fake news!”

Let me take a moment to unpack the misinterpretations, distortions and contradictions jammed into those two sentences.

“The Democrats had to come up with a story” refers to Trump’s claim that the Russia allegations are nothing more than a tantrum by Democrats upset that Hillary Clinton did not win as they had expected. That is ridiculous. The Democratic Party is focused on rebuilding at the grass-roots level and finding new leadership. Democrats I’ve spoken to have as much criticism as praise for Clinton and the campaign she ran.

Trump’s phrase “they lost the election, and so badly” ignores the facts. Clinton did comfortably win the popular vote, after all. And Trump’s electoral margin was historically quite modest.

The part about how Democrats “made up a story — RUSSIA” is absurd. It was U.S. intelligence agencies, not the Democratic Party or the Clinton campaign, that made the finding that Russia meddled in our election with the aim of boosting Trump’s prospects. If anything, the chief Democrat at the time — President Barack Obama — reacted too mildly.

And the tweet ends with what has become Trump’s favorite way to dismiss anything he’d rather not hear: “Fake news!” But why would his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, step down over inauthentic news reports? In other tweets Thursday morning, Trump attacked “low-life leakers” in the intelligence community — thus essentially confirming that leaked information about the Russia connection is genuine, not “fake.” Not even a president can have it both ways.

More here.

The Downfall of Kellyanne Conway

Erin Gloria Ryan, writing in The New York Times:

As Kellyanne Conway sleepwalks her way through a series of increasingly embarrassing interviews, it’s been hard not to feel sorry for her. It was difficult not to feel bad for her when “Saturday Night Live” depicted her as a craven hack driven to “Fatal Attraction”style debasement by a desire to appear on the news. When the cast of “Morning Joe” pointed out that Ms. Conway’s recent appearances on news shows proved her a useless source of information, when they sneered at Ms. Conway’s apparent White House ostracization, it was difficult to not feel stirrings of sympathy.

But I can’t feel sorry for Kellyanne Conway. Not anymore.

Not long ago, Ms. Conway felt like a vital part of a system that needed smart people on both sides to make it work. As a pollster who studied the electoral behavior of women, she served as a bridge between the right wing and a demographic that often seemed to perplex them.

The first time I saw Ms. Conway speak was at a New Yorker Festival panel in 2012. I was new to New York City. I was new to writing about politics. I was new to writing, period. On a panel about women voters, Ms. Conway spoke with a pragmatism that stood in opposition to contemporary TV personalities like Elisabeth Hasselbeck, whose brand of delicate pouting defined the conservative zeitgeist. Ms. Conway didn’t appeal to her audience’s sympathy. She had facts.

* * *

When Ms. Conway breached federal ethics laws by hawking Ivanka Trump’s “stuff” in the press briefing room, she got off with no immediate penalty besides being “counseled on the subject.” She told Fox News that the president supported her, that she was lucky to have a nice boss like Donald Trump and that every woman in America should hope to have a boss like him. She made it sound as though declining to punish a woman for ethics violations was somehow feminist, and as though all that matters to women is how their bosses treat them personally, not how their bosses impact the lives of other women.

If I wasn’t too exhausted to feel insulted, I’d have felt insulted.

More here.

President Trump, White House Apprentice

Via New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s with a whiff of desperation that President Trump insists these days that he’s the chief executive Washington needs, the decisive dealmaker who, as he said during the campaign, “alone can fix it.” What America has seen so far is an inept White House led by a celebrity apprentice.

This president did not inherit “a mess” from Barack Obama, as he likes to say, but a nation recovered from recession and with strong alliances abroad. Mr. Trump is well on his way to creating a mess of his own, weakening national security and even risking the delivery of basic government services. Most of the top thousand jobs in the administration remain vacant. Career public servants are clashing with inexperienced “beachhead” teams appointed by the White House to run federal agencies until permanent staff members arrive.

Mr. Trump lost his national security adviser this week in a scandal involving ties to Russian intelligence. Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refused the job on Thursday, rattled by a dysfunctional National Security Council and a president who has alienated Mexico, Australia and even the British royal family, while cozying up to Moscow.

When Mr. Trump’s assistants can keep the edge of panic out of their voices, they insist that Mr. Trump has gotten more done in the early going than most presidents. And Mr. Trump is so adept at creating smoke that Americans might be forgiven for thinking that’s true. But at this point in the Obama presidency, which did inherit a mess, Congress had passed laws aimed at dragging the economy back from the brink of depression while committing $800 billion in Recovery Act spending to projects ranging from housing to roads to advanced energy technologies.

* * *

“Everything he rolls out is done so badly,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, marveled recently. “They’re just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly.”

If there is any upside here, it is that the administration’s ineptitude has so far spared the nation from a wholesale dismantling of major laws, including the Affordable Care Act, though he may yet kill the law through malign neglect. In the meantime, however, as Mr. Harward’s retreat on Thursday suggests, the chaos carries other risks. A Navy SEAL turned corporate executive, Mr. Harward cited family and financial considerations for refusing the national security job, but privately he was reported to be worried about the effect of a mercurial president on national security decision making. As Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said this week: “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”

More here.

What a Failed Trump Administration Looks Like

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.

Trump’s White House staff is at war with itself. His poll ratings are falling at unprecedented speed. His policy agenda is stalled. F.B.I. investigations are just beginning. This does not feel like a sustainable operation.

On the other hand, I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.

There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.

Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.

What does that look like?

First, it means an administration that is passive, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. To get anything done, a president depends on the vast machinery of the U.S. government. But Trump doesn’t mesh with that machinery. He is personality-based while it is rule-based. Furthermore, he’s declared war on it. And when you declare war on the establishment, it declares war on you.

The Civil Service has a thousand ways to ignore or sit on any presidential order. The court system has given itself carte blanche to overturn any Trump initiative, even on the flimsiest legal grounds. The intelligence community has only just begun to undermine this president.

President Trump can push all the pretty buttons on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, but don’t expect anything to actually happen, because they are not attached.

Second, this will probably become a more insular administration. Usually when administrations stumble, they fire a few people and bring in the grown-ups — the James Baker or the David Gergen types. But Trump is anti-grown-up, so it’s hard to imagine Chief of Staff Haley Barbour. Instead, the circle of trust seems to be shrinking to his daughter, her husband and Stephen Bannon.

Bannon has a coherent worldview, which is a huge advantage when all is chaos. It’s interesting how many of Bannon’s rivals have woken up with knives in their backs. Michael Flynn is gone. Reince Priebus has been unmanned by a thousand White House leaks. Rex Tillerson had the potential to be an effective secretary of state, but Bannon neutered him last week by denying him the ability to even select his own deputy.

In an administration in which “promoted beyond his capacity” takes on new meaning, Bannon looms. With each passing day, Trump talks more like Bannon without the background reading.

Third, we are about to enter a decentralized world. For the past 70 years most nations have instinctively looked to the U.S. for leadership, either to follow or oppose. But in capitals around the world, intelligence agencies are drafting memos with advice on how to play Donald Trump.

The first conclusion is obvious. This administration is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern nation-state. It’s more “The Madness of King George” than “The Missiles of October.” The key currency is not power, it’s flattery.

The corollary is that Trump is ripe to be played. Give the boy a lollipop and he won’t notice if you steal his lunch. The Japanese gave Trump a new jobs announcement he could take to the Midwest, and in return they got presidential attention and coddling that other governments would have died for.

If you want to roll the Trump administration, you’ve got to get in line. The Israelis got a possible one-state solution. The Chinese got Trump to flip-flop on the “One China” policy. The Europeans got him to do a 180 on undoing the Iran nuclear deal.

More here.

A Party to the Russian Connection

Evan McMullin, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump’s disturbing Russian connections present an acute danger to American national security. According to reports this week, Mr. Trump’s team maintained frequent contact with Russian officials, including senior intelligence officers, during the campaign. This led to concerns about possible collusion with one of America’s principal strategic adversaries as it tried to influence the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. On Monday, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was forced to resign after details of his communications with the Russian ambassador emerged.

Republican leaders in Congress now bear the most responsibility for holding the president accountable and protecting the nation. They can’t say they didn’t see the Russian interference coming. They knew all along.

Early in 2015, senior Republican congressional leaders visited Ukraine and returned full of praise for its fight for independence in spite of Russia’s efforts to destabilize the country and annex some of its regions. And in June, coincidentally just before Mr. Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination, they met with Ukraine’s prime minister in Washington — one of many meetings I attended as a senior aide to the House Republican Conference.

As the presidential race wore on, some of those leaders began to see parallels between Russia’s disinformation operations in Ukraine and Europe and its activities in the United States. They were alarmed by the Kremlin-backed cable network RT America, which was running stories intended, they judged, to undermine Americans’ trust in democratic institutions and promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Deeply unsettled, the leaders discussed these concerns privately on several occasions I witnessed.

Some also questioned Mr. Trump’s attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, women and people with disabilities, or his positions on entitlement reform, discretionary spending and national security. Others were unnerved by his volatile temperament, egoism and authoritarian tendencies. In public, they occasionally offered light criticism of Mr. Trump’s most objectionable comments, but mostly remained silent for fear of antagonizing his supporters.

As Mr. Trump campaigned, his consistent affection for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and apparent defense of Russian intervention in Ukraine raised further concerns. In December 2015, on “Morning Joe,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” He also equated Mr. Putin’s murderous regime with the American government: “Our country does plenty of killing, also” — a remark he has repeated as president.

Suspect public comments like these led one senior Republican leader to dolefully inform his peers that he thought Mr. Trump was on the Kremlin’s payroll, suggesting that Mr. Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence. Other leaders were surprised by their colleague’s frank assessment, but did not dispute it.

As Mr. Trump prevailed in state after state, the leaders came to terms with the possibility, then the likelihood, that he would win the nomination. During the process, most leaders had not endorsed a candidate and hoped that Mr. Trump would be stopped. By early May 2016, however, his victory appeared a fait accompli, placing them in an unenviable position. As senior leaders, opposing the outcome of the party contest was unthinkable.

Eventually, one by one, they all committed to supporting Mr. Trump, often simply saying they would support the nominee, conspicuously avoiding uttering Mr. Trump’s name. In a fascinating political metamorphosis, some even found reason to be excited about Mr. Trump.

* * *

Now the leaders’ worst fears seem validated. Mr. Flynn has become the third Trump team member to step down over Russia-related issues, following the campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

This plotline is unlikely to improve of its own accord, and America’s security is now at stake. For Republican leaders in Congress, there is no more room for cognitive dissonance. Instead, it is urgent that they recommit to patriotic prudence. They should demand that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appoint an independent special counsel to investigate Russia’s assault on American democracy and Mr. Trump’s possible collusion with the Kremlin.

Much more here.

The Trump brand was built on winning. So what happens when it starts to lose?

Christine Emba, writing in The Washington Post:

The White House is perhaps the best imaginable venue for product placement. But despite the fact that it now commands a presidential seal, the Trump brand seems less attractive than ever.

Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and even discount retailers such as Kmart are dropping daughter Ivanka’s fashion line. Companies such as Uber face backlash for merely giving the impression of being pro-Trump. Professional athletes, those traditional arbiters of cool, are turning their backs: So far, six of the New England Patriots have declined to meet the president, and beloved Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry mockingly described President Trump as an asset — “if you remove the ‘et.’ ”

The “brash business mogul” brand just hasn’t translated well from the campaign trail to leadership of the country. In fact, the move to D.C. seems to have deflated it completely.

Overexposure hasn’t helped. Even under the harsh lights of the campaign, Trump operated under, if not a veil of mystery, at least a level of remove. Watchers certainly saw enough of him to stick in their minds, but the barrage only became unrelenting late in the game.

Today, however, we’re seeing far more of Trump than we would like — and it’s rarely a flattering view. The constant, unnecessary tweets! The manifold White House leaks! The confoundingly public bathrobe discussions! The tweets again!

It’s one thing for a provocateur to make an effort to stay in the public eye: Think of Madonna’s ever-changing looks. But at a certain point — perhaps after the presidency has been achieved, or your 13th studio album — it ceases to impress. Remember when a negative Trump tweet had the power to make a company’s stock drop? His latest swing at Nordstrom did the opposite . Over time consumers have become numb to Trumpisms, or worse, they’ve begun to find them grating.

But there’s another problem more damaging than overexposure: The narrative beneath the Trump brand is crumbling.

A brand is a promise to a customer. On the campaign trail, and throughout his career, Trump built his brand on getting things done that no one else could. Using the element of surprise. Making the best deals. Winning, first and foremost. Improbably, the election bore this story out. But what happens when a brand built on winning starts to lose?

Trump’s first major gambit was his executive order on immigration, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s swift ruling against it was an undeniable, and justified, loss. The bluster and bravado of his all-caps response — “SEE YOU IN COURT” — didn’t make that failure any less apparent (in no small part because, well, we did just see him in court, didn’t we?).

While every new administration experiences setbacks, Trump’s unpreparedness and lack of organization clearly contributed to this early defeat and others that have come with it: a lackluster inauguration whose underattendance was only highlighted by flagrant falsehoods about crowd size, a botched raid in Yemen, the resignation of a national security adviser over improper contacts with Russia. These fast-mounting failures set an ominous tone. It’s hard to trust the brand going forward.

But all is not lost. Marketing experts and corporate strategists would soothingly point out that setbacks aren’t necessarily the end of the story. A moment of crisis is an excellent opportunity to pivot — try a brand refresh, if you will. It worked for Burberry in the late ’90s. Why not Trump today?

More here.

Time for Congress to Investigate Mr. Trump’s Ties to Russia

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

In history, this is where Congress steps in. During the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal, when a president’s actions or policies crossed the line, Congress investigated and held the White House to account. The time has come for it to do so again.

In the last week alone, Americans have witnessed the firing of President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and learned with shock and incredulity that members of Mr. Trump’s campaign and inner circle were in repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials.

Coming on top of credible information from America’s intelligence agencies that Russia tried to destabilize and influence the 2016 presidential campaign, these latest revelations are more than sufficient reason for Congress to investigate what Moscow has been up to and whether people at the highest levels of the United States government have aided and abetted the interests of a nation that has tried to thwart American foreign policy since the Cold War.

Given that context, one might expect Mr. Trump to be clamoring for details that would eliminate any suspicion that his administration is in league with an enemy. Instead he has waged an unhinged attack on the intelligence agencies themselves, praising President Vladimir Putin of Russia at every turn and pointing fingers everywhere but at himself, while refusing to take a single step to resolve questions about his administration’s ties to Russia.

Hence the urgent need for high-level congressional intervention. The ideal vehicle would be an investigative committee of senior senators from both parties as well as members of the House. Some Senate Republicans are beginning to step up. Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has already said his committee will investigate the election hacking. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, are asking for a briefing and transcripts of Mr. Flynn’s calls to the Russian ambassador.

Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Pat Roberts favor a broader investigation. John Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, has also raised the possibility of an investigation by Senate committees with jurisdiction over the intelligence community.

The Democrats would obviously be on board — Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, has also called for the Senate Intelligence Committee to lead a bipartisan inquiry. The person who needs to make this happen is Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Whatever form the committee takes, as Mr. Schumer said on Wednesday, all members must be granted equal access to “intelligence officials, transcripts and documents that they need to answer critical questions, and they must be permitted to make their findings public to the maximum extent possible.”

More here.

G.O.P.’s Grand Visions for Congress Now Look Like a Mirage

Jennifer Steinhauer, writing in the New York Times:

Congressional Republicans, who craved unified control of the government to secure their aggressive conservative agenda, have instead found themselves on a legislative elliptical trainer, gliding toward nowhere.

After moving to start rolling back the Affordable Care Act just days after President Trump was sworn in last month, Republican lawmakers and Mr. Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised. Efforts to come up with a replacement for the health care lawhave been stymied by disagreements among Republicans about how to proceed. The same is true for a proposed overhaul of the tax code.

The large infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Mr. Trump were eager to pursue has barely been mentioned, other than a very general hearing to discuss well-documented needs for infrastructure improvements. Even a simple emergency spending bill that the Trump administration promised weeks ago — which was expected to include a proposal for his wall on the Mexican border — has not materialized, leaving appropriators idle and checking Twitter.

At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled Washington, Congress had passed a stimulus bill totaling nearly $1 trillion to address the financial crisis, approved a measure preventing pay discrimination, expanded a children’s health insurance program, and begun laying the groundwork for major health care and financial regulation bills. President George W. Bush came into office with a congressional blueprint for his signature education act, No Child Left Behind.

But in the 115th Congress, the Senate has done little more than struggle to confirm Mr. Trump’s nominees, and Republicans ultimately helped force his choice for labor secretary, Andrew F. Puzder, to withdraw from consideration on Wednesday in the face of unified Democratic opposition.

The House has spent most of its time picking off a series of deregulation measures, like overturning a rule intended to protect surface water from mining operations. For his part, Mr. Trump has relied mostly on executive orders to advance policies.

The inactivity stems from a lack of clear policy guidance — and, just as often, contradictory messages — from the Trump administration, which does not appear to have spent the campaign and transition periods forming a legislative wish list. Democrats have also led efforts to slow the confirmation of nominees to Mr. Trump’s cabinet who might otherwise be leading the charge.

“When you spend a lot of time talking about policy and debating policy in the presidential campaign, it is far easier to be specific about legislation when you get into office,” said Austan Goolsbee, who served as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “President Trump spent the campaign fleshing out nothing in detail, so it’s not really a surprise that they can’t even agree on priorities, much less on actual legislative detail.”

House Republicans say slow and steady was always the plan. “We are 100 percent on pace with the 200-day plan we presented to President Trump and to members at our retreat,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan, wrote in an email. “Budget first (check), then regs (check), then Obamacare bill (in process and on schedule), and then tax (after Obamacare).”

But even Democrats, who had been gearing up for fights and compromises on health care, a tax overhaul, infrastructure and other policy matters, are bored and frustrated. “It’s painful for someone like me who was excited about infrastructure and tax reform,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut. “It seems like the administration and the majority are nowhere.”

Much more here.

Threee (count ’em) investigations on one afternoon

Via the Washington Post:

In the space of a little more than an hour on Tuesday afternoon, life was breathed into three separate and distinct potential investigations of the Trump administration.

First came the independent Office of Government Ethics’s recommendation that the White House should investigate Kellyanne Conway’s plug of Ivanka Trump’s fashion line and “consider taking disciplinary action.” The letter was first tweeted by the House Oversight Committee‘s Democrats at 2 p.m.

A half-hour later, the Republican chairman of the Oversight Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), announced a letter probing Trump’s apparent discussion of sensitive information out in the open this weekend at Mar-a-Lago.

Finally, a little after 3 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it was “highly likely” the Senate would deepen its Russia investigation after Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s national security adviser and questions emerged about whether his December discussion of sanctions with Russia’s ambassador broke the law.

More here.

Here we go….

Senators from both parties pledge to deepen probe of Russia and the 2016 election

Via The Washington Post:

Top Republican and Democratic senators pledged Tuesday to deepen their investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation as President Trump’s national security adviser, opening a new and potentially uncomfortable chapter in the uneasy relationship between Trump and Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said such an investigation is “highly likely,” and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), stood side by side Tuesday to announce that the committee’s ongoing probe must include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.

Flynn resigned late Monday after revelations of potentially illegal contacts with Russia last year and misleading statements about the communication to senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Pence.

“We are aggressively going to continue the oversight responsibilities of the committee as it relates to not only the Russian involvement in the 2016 election, but again any contacts by any campaign individuals that might have happened with Russian government officials,” said Burr, the chairman of the intelligence panel.

Added Warner, the vice chairman, “The press reports are troubling, and the sooner we can get to the veracity of those press reports or not, then we’ll take the next appropriate step.”

The consensus among lawmakers came at a tense moment, when congressional Republicans were already finding it difficult to defend Trump as the tempestuous start to his term has stoked frustration, fatigue and fear on Capitol Hill.

Many congressional Republicans have endured Trump’s unpredictability — including his criticism of the federal judiciary, and an immigration order that caught them by surprise and drew intense national blowback and a legal rebuke — because they think he holds the key to passing laws they have talked about for years.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of House members, put it this way: “I would rather accomplish something with distractions than not accomplish anything with smooth sailing.”

Burr and Warner’s agreement is also striking given the partisan feuding that has characterized investigations into Russia and the election — and relationships on Capitol Hill generally. The two senators were initially at odds over whether the committee’s probe should include potential ties between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, with Burr suggesting that it was outside the panel’s purview.

On Tuesday, Burr defended the committee’s right to look at those potential contacts, including any that may have occurred before Trump’s inauguration. And he has the support of Senate GOP leadership; in addition to McConnell, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the majority whip, and Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the GOP conference vice chairman, also called for investigations into Flynn’s actions.

Their pronouncements contrasted sharply with remarks by Republicans in the House, who applauded Flynn’s resignation but for the most part stopped short of calling for further investigation.

“I’ll leave it up to the administration to describe the circumstances surrounding what brought [Flynn] to this point,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters.

Some took aim elsewhere. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said the most significant question posed by Flynn’s resignation is why intelligence officials eavesdropped on his calls with the Russian ambassador and later leaked information on those calls to the news media.

“I expect for the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer,” Nunes said. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”

Democrats cautiously applauded plans to expand the Senate investigation, even though several of them had called for an independent probe run by a special prosecutor. McConnell and Republicans will certainly have more control over an in-house investigation, but even Warner said he favors that approach.

“Not only do we have oversight over intelligence and counterintelligence, but it works in a bipartisan basis,” Warner told reporters.

Many Democrats think the slow, painstaking but largely public process of an independent commission, such as the 9/11 Commission, is preferable to leaving the investigation in the hands of committees that work in secret, giving leaders more latitude to pull political strings.

More here.

Democrats Demand Inquiry of Russian Role in U.S. Affairs; G.O.P. Concern Grows

Via The New York Times:

The stunning resignation of Michael T. Flynn as White House national security adviser has emboldened congressional Democrats to demand a broader investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia — and compelled a small group of leading Republicans to acknowledge growing concerns over the episode.

“It’s dysfunctional as far as national security is concerned,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of the Trump White House. “Who’s in charge? Who’s in charge? Who’s making policy? Who’s making decisions?”

While many Republican lawmakers remained largely silent on Tuesday about the deep turmoil in Mr. Trump’s national security apparatus, some allowed that further inquiry might be necessary, to a point.

Republican leadership in the Senate said that it was likely that Mr. Flynn would be asked to speak to the Intelligence Committee, which is looking into Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 election, and that his discussions with the Russian ambassador would probably be folded into the review.

But there still appeared to be little momentum for a select committee to investigate Russian interference — an idea that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has long resisted.

Few Republicans in Congress lamented Mr. Flynn’s departure from the administration, crediting Mr. Trump for hastening his resignation, despite reports that White House officials knew for weeks that Mr. Flynn had misled colleagues.

“I think it’s pretty obvious why he decided to make the decision he did,” Mr. McConnell said of Mr. Trump.

At the same time, in a striking role reversal, the party long known for its universally hawkish stance toward Russia is now ceding some of that ground to Democrats.

On Tuesday, Democrats tried to make it clear that Mr. Flynn’s resignation must be only the first chapter in the story of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.

“The crisis here rises above party,” said the Democratic leader in the Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, calling for an “independent, nonpartisan” investigation and insisting that Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general who was active in Mr. Trump’s campaign alongside Mr. Flynn, recuse himself from any review.

* * *

Mr. McCain, one of the most vocal critics of Mr. Trump’s approach and tenor toward Russia, was among the earliest to speak out forcefully on Tuesday.

General Flynn’s resignation also raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including statements by the president suggesting moral equivalence between the United States and Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, threats to our NATO allies, and attempted interference in American elections,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.

However, Mr. McCain did not restate his earlier calls for a select committee to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election, which has not been supported by Mr. McConnell, who said any such investigations should be the purview of the relevant Senate committees. Mr. McCain has vowed that his committee will conduct a thorough inquiry and that he had full confidence in Mr. Trump’s defense and homeland security secretaries, calling his partnership with them “excellent.”

Most Republicans pursued similar arguments, deflecting questions about the need for further investigations into the administration’s ties to Russia. But a handful expressed concern about the pace of progress.

“It is frustrating to understand how we’re going to get a full, in-depth look at all the things that have happened,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think this episode does heighten the intensity around wanting to make sure that it’s fulsome and that we understand all aspects of what’s occurred.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, identified a possible silver lining.

“I just think it makes it almost impossible for them to lift sanctions now,” said Mr. Graham, who introduced bipartisan legislation last week that would require congressional approval for Mr. Trump to lift sanctions against Russia. “That’s sort of the good news.”

Mr. Graham suggested, gently, that Republicans should take care to avoid any appearance of hypocrisy.

“I think it’s important for us to be informed about the phone call. Did he do it by himself? Did he kind of go rogue or did somebody suggest to him to call the Russians?” he said. “I know we would be upset as Republicans if the Obama administration had done this.”