GOP leaders made a huge wager — and they’re losing

Michael Gerson, reporting for the Washington Post:

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) promised Obamacare repeal, funding for the wall and tax reform, all by the end of August. For the GOP, it is now September, both literally and metaphorically.

In the spring of their hopes, Republican leaders placed a bet — which seemed reasonable at the time — that they could contain President Trump and pass legislation despite him. This required looking away from the uglier aspects of Trump’s appeal — his Twitter transgressions, his appallingly frenzied rallies, his rule by ridicule. All this was worth swallowing because Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would pass their conservative agenda.

The wager was large and lost. The attempt to revive a health-care alternative in the Senate seems halfhearted and doomed by the same ideological dynamics that killed the legislation the first time. Republican enthusiasm for the Mexican border wall is limited by the fact that it is among the most wasteful, impractical and useless ideas ever spouted by an American president. And ambitious tax reform has been tabled in favor of a few tax cuts that are likely to reaffirm public impressions that the “P” in GOP stands for “plutocracy.”

In the process, Republican leaders have been made to look hapless and pathetic, not least because Trump has taken to taunting them. A president incapable of legislative leadership mocks the ineffectiveness of Republican legislators, publicly humiliates them on the debt-limit deal, then revels in the (very temporary) friendship of “Chuck and Nancy” — Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi.

Those Republicans who believe that Trump is being cynical, disloyal or politically calculating continue to misunderstand the man. The president has no discernible political philosophy or strong policy views to betray. His leadership consists mainly of instincts, reflexes and prejudices, which often have nothing to do with self-interest. He has a genius for fame, which usually involves attention-attracting unpredictability and transgressiveness. Trump reads events moment by moment, making him a cork on the waves of cable coverage. Any choice he makes is correct by definition, because he has made it. And any person — on his staff or on Capitol Hill — who does not precisely mimic his political gyrations is disloyal and should be punished.

Most public officials have never worked with anyone like this before. Among other things, it means that any vocal conviction politician — any leader, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who regularly heeds the whisper of duty and conscience — will be Trump’s enemy. With a little patience.

What have Republican leaders who bet the other way — on accommodation — lost in the process?

The wager has been a disaster in the realm of policy. During legislative debates on issues such as health care, Trump has been erratic, unfocused, impatient and frighteningly ignorant. His White House policy staff — some of whom are responsible and talented — try to work with Capitol Hill, but always under the threat that their efforts will be destroyed by a tweet. Congressional Republicans see the White House as a basket case, don’t think that any administration official speaks authoritatively for the president and increasingly fear entering the midterm elections entirely naked of accomplishment.

The wager has been a disaster in the realm of politics. The president takes it as an accomplishment to secure the support of about 35 percent of the public. This leaves Republicans in the worst of political worlds, where the intensity of Trump’s base is increased by words and policies that alienate the majority — making Trump a powerful force within the party and a scary, galvanizing figure beyond it. The damage is broad, profound and generational. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll recorded 26 percent approval for the president among those aged 18 to 34.

The wager has been a moral disaster. News accounts following Trump’s betrayal of Republican leaders on the debt limit reported them to be “livid.” What does it tell us about Republican politicians that they were livid about a three-month debt-limit extension but not so much about misogyny, nativism and flirtation with racism? Or maybe they were, but they still thought the wager might work. Such lack of wisdom and proportion is an indictment as well.

All Republican efforts — at least in the traditional wing of the party — must now be bent toward one, difficult end: establishing a GOP identity apart from Trump. And that will require Republican leaders to cease being complicit in their own humiliation and irrelevance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More here.

The White House is imploding

Ruth Marcus, reporting for the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More here.

Jeff Sessions just got in more trouble — and now he’s put Trump in a box, too

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘s bad week just got worse. And while his new problems would appear to threaten his job, they also put President Trump in a box when it comes to his apparent desire to be rid of Sessions.

The Washington Post is reporting that Russia’s ambassador has said he and Sessions discussed the 2016 campaign during two meetings last year. That is contrary to multiple public comments made by Sessions in March, when he recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation.

Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller report that Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of those meetings were intercepted by U.S. intelligence and that in them he suggested that the two men spoke substantively about campaign issues. Yet Sessions said March 1 that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” and the following day, while announcing his recusal, he said it again: “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.”

This is now the second time that Sessions’s accounts of his meetings with Russians have been seriously called into question. During his confirmation hearings this year, he denied having met with any Russians during the campaign. When the Kislyak meetings came to light, he clarified that he thought the exchange was in the context of the campaign only. He then quickly recused himself.

That flub was highlighted this week by none other than Trump. In a New York Times interview, Trump openly suggested that he wouldn’t have nominated Sessions in the first place had he known he would recuse himself. Then Trump turned to Sessions’s “bad answers” at his confirmation hearings:

TRUMP: So Jeff Sessions, Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: You mean at the hearing?

TRUMP: Yeah, he gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.

If Trump does want to get rid of Sessions, it would seem that more of Sessions’s “bad answers” about his meetings with Kislyak are on the table to justify it. The problem for Trump is that using that justification would also lend credence to the idea that there was something untoward about those meetings. Trump has repeatedly suggested that the entire Russia investigation is a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” so the idea that he’s suddenly that concerned about Sessions’s Russia contacts would be difficult to reconcile.

It would also be difficult to square with other top Trump allies and family members who have failed to acknowledge or be transparent about their meetings with Russians. How could Trump take issue with Sessions’s failures to correctly characterize his meetings with Russians but not with Donald Trump Jr., whose meeting seeking opposition research about Hillary Clinton allegedly from the Russian government came to light this month? And then what about Jared Kushner‘s meetings, which include that one, a meeting with Kislyak and a meeting with the head of a Russian state-owned bank. None of them were disclosed on his security clearance form when he joined the White House. Trump would need to explain why Sessions’s failures were bad and his son’s and son-in-law’s weren’t.

But Trump nonetheless seemed to get the ball rolling on that front in his New York Times interview. And given that more of Sessions’s comments have come into question now, we’ll see whether Trump keeps using that as justification for continuing to undermine one of his earliest supporters and top Cabinet officials.

‘Category 5 hurricane’: White House under siege by Trump Jr.’s Russia revelations

Philip Rucker and Ashly Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of ever-worsening revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer characterized as representing the Russian government, as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle one another with suspicion, according to top White House officials and outside advisers.

President Trump — who has been hidden from public view since returning last weekend from a divisive international summit — is enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency and is exasperated that his eldest son and namesake has become engulfed by it, said people who have spoken with him this week.

The disclosure that Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney, believing he would receive incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to boost his father’s candidacy, has set back the administration’s faltering agenda and rattled the senior leadership team.

On Wednesday, in his first Twitter posts since the email disclosures, Trump defended his son by repeating past claims that his administration is the subject of a “witch hunt” fueled by leakers.

“My son Donald did a good job last night,” Trump wrote, referring to his son’s appearance on Fox News. “He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”

Trump also took aim at anonymous leaks from “sources” — even though Trump Jr. gave a step-by-step email chronology of the plans for the meeting with the Russian lawyer in 2016.

Even supporters of Trump Jr. who believe he faces no legal repercussions privately acknowledged Tuesday that the story is a public relations disaster — for him as well as for the White House. One outside ally called it a “Category 5 hurricane,” while an outside adviser said a CNN graphic charting connections between the Trump team and Russians resembled the plot of the fictional Netflix series “House of Cards.”

Vice President Pence sought to distance himself from the controversy, with his spokesman noting that Trump Jr.’s meeting occurred before Pence joined the ticket.

Inside a White House in which infighting often seems like a core cultural value, three straight days of revelations in the New York Times about Trump Jr. have inspired a new round of accusations and recriminations, with advisers privately speculating about who inside the Trump orbit may be leaking damaging information about the president’s son.

This portrait of the Trump White House under siege is based on interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen West Wing officials, outside advisers, and friends and associates of the president and his family, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

The makeup of Trump’s inner circle is the subject of internal debate, as ever. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Jared Kushner, her husband and another senior adviser; and first lady Melania Trump have been privately pressing the president to shake up his team — most specifically by replacing Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff, according to two senior White House officials and one ally close to the White House.

The three family members are especially concerned about the steady stream of unauthorized leaks to journalists that have plagued the administration over the nearly six months that President Trump has been in office, from sensitive national security information to embarrassing details about the inner workings of the White House, the officials said.

Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, said: “Of course, the first lady is concerned about leaks from her husband’s administration, as all Americans should be. And while she does offer advice and perspectives on many things, Mrs. Trump does not weigh in on West Wing staff.”

Lindsay Walters, a deputy White House press secretary, disputed reports about Priebus’s standing. “These sources have been consistently wrong about Reince, and they’re still wrong today,” she said.

After this story first published, Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman, said in a statement on behalf of Kushner and Ivanka Trump: “Jared and Ivanka are focused on working with Reince and the team to advance the President’s agenda and not on pushing for staff changes.”

Trump recently publicly praised Priebus’s work ethic, and the chief of staff’s allies note that Priebus has done as good a job as can be expected under the unique circumstances of this administration. Defenders of Priebus have long said they expect him to make it to a year in the position, and Trump is said to be hesitant to fire him or any other senior staffer amid the escalating Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The mind-set of Trump Jr. over the past few days has evolved from distress to anger to defiance, according to people close to him. He hired a criminal defense attorney but maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. After his tweets commenting on the matter drew scrutiny, he agreed to his first media interview — with his friend Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity on his show on Tuesday night.

Much more here.

Trump close to choosing outside counsel for Russia investigation

Robert Costa and Ashley Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump is moving rapidly toward assembling outside counsel to help him navigate the investigations into his campaign and Russian interference in last year’s election, and in recent days he and his advisers have privately courted several prominent attorneys to join the effort.

By Monday, a list of finalists for the legal team had emerged, according to four people briefed on the discussions.

That search process, in which Trump has been personally involved, is expected to yield a formal legal unit in the coming days, made up of lawyers from several firms who would work together to guide Trump as he responds both to the ongoing federal probe and the congressional investigations, the people said.

Although the list of finalists remains somewhat fluid and names could be added, two people close to the search said the president has concluded that he would like a team of attorneys, rather than a single lawyer, to represent him. The team is likely to have lead counselors, those people said.

The four people briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter publicly.

The attorneys who have spoken to the White House and who are seen as the finalists are Marc E. Kasowitz; Robert J. Giuffra Jr.; Reid H. Weingarten; and Theodore B. Olson, the people said.

Two other attorneys who were originally viewed as contenders but have since drifted away from the mix, at least momentarily, because of legal or professional obstacles are Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. of Williams & Connolly and A.B. Culvahouse Jr., a partner at O’Melveny & Myers who is known for vetting political candidates.

Kasowitz, who has known Trump for decades, is expected to take a leading role. A partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in New York, Kasowitz has represented Trump in numerous cases, including on his divorce records, real estate transactions and allegations of fraud at Trump University.

A potential complication for Kasowitz is that former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Trump’s leading candidate to head the FBI, is currently a senior counsel at his firm. Were Lieberman officially chosen to run the FBI, and Kasowitz chosen to help with Trump’s legal advice, both men — the one leading the organization investigating possible Russian collusion and the one offering Trump legal counsel on that very issue — would hail from the same firm, a likely conflict of interest.

Giuffra, Olson and Weingarten have already spoken with senior administration officials about the team, said a person familiar with the process.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment about how Trump would pay for his outside legal team, the cost of which cannot be covered by the federal government. But campaign finance lawyers said Trump could probably draw funds from his reelection committee to cover legal expenses related to the Russia inquiries, including money donated this year.

“When it comes to legal expenses, the test is whether the expenses would have been incurred irrespective of the campaign,” said Daniel Petalas, a Washington campaign-finance lawyer who served as the Federal Election Commission’s acting general counsel and head of enforcement. “So if the allegation is Trump — either as candidate or officeholder — is facing legal costs as a result of those statuses, then he is entitled to use his campaign funds to defray the legal expenses.”

In a break from precedent, Trump’s campaign committee has continued to aggressively solicit donations since his election. In recent days, the email and text appeals have invoked the controversies swirling around the White House.

“What you’re seeing in the news is a WITCH HUNT,” said a fundraising solicitation seeking $1 donations sent Friday. “But the real victim isn’t me. It’s YOU and the millions of other brave Americans who refused to bow down to Washington by voting for REAL CHANGE last November.”

The president, a former New York real estate developer and reality television star, also has the personal wealth to cover his legal costs.

Some outside experts noted that the president’s decision to consider a team of legal advisers, rather than a single outside counselor, could exacerbate his existing problem of competing power factions within an already chaotic White House.

Much more here.

President Trump is practically begging to be accused of obstruction of justice

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9. And then he basically spent the next two days doing whatever he could to make it look like he had just committed obstruction of justice.

First came that infamous NBC News interview on May 11. After two days of the White House claiming the Justice Department had initiated Comey’s firing and that it was because of the Hillary Clinton investigation, Trump said to hell with it; he blurted out that he was determined to fire Comey all along and that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to do it.

Now the New York Times is reporting that, in a meeting with top Russian officials on the day in-between — you know, the same meeting in which he gave highly classified information to those same Russians — Trump expressed relief at having taken Comey off his tail.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to a document summarizing the meeting that a U.S. official read to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Firing Comey in the first place was a highly suspect move. That’s because Comey, as FBI director, was leading the Russia investigation and had recently announced the probe was targeting alleged Russian ties to Trump’s campaign. So the White House set about saying this was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein‘s decision and issued a memo from him focused solely on the Clinton investigation. Vice President Pence even said repeatedly that Russia was “not what this is about.”

Trump was apparently never on the same page — at all.

If we’re parsing Trump’s statements carefully, he still hasn’t technically said something akin to ‘I fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.’ He’s said just about everything but that, mind you, but he hasn’t quite said that.

In the NBC interview, he said that Russia was clearly on his mind when he considered Comey’s future:

“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”

And in the meeting with the Russians, he said, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

There’s no firm line from A to B in there. A well-paid lawyer would argue that Trump was saying in the NBC interview that he was thinking about Russia, but that it wasn’t necessarily the reason he acted. And maybe Trump did enjoy having Comey off the case, but perhaps that was merely a helpful byproduct of a more legitimate reason to fire him.

But Trump’s own statements aren’t the only news to raise questions about a possible obstruction of justice; he’s also pushed that cause forward by firing Comey in the first place. The firing has led to leaks indicating Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge and also that he requested that Comey drop the investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The White House has denied these stories. But if they’re true, Trump fired Comey knowing that those conversations existed and that Comey may have documentation of them. That may one day look like a very bad call.

All of these point in the same direction: to Trump first trying to influence Comey’s investigations and then to getting Comey off his back by firing him. And all of these revelations flow from the same fateful decision to fire Comey in the first place. We may not have known about any of them if not for that.

It’s not completely clear that a president could be charged with obstruction of justice, but as our own Matt Zapotosky has reported, some legal analysts are starting to point in that direction.

And Trump is practically giving them a road map.

The Trump Administration Talent Vacuum

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

After an eruption, volcanoes sometimes collapse at the center. The magma chamber empties out and the volcano falls in on itself, leaving a caldera and a fractured ring of stone around the void, covered by deadening ash.

That’s about the shape of Washington after the last stunning fortnight. The White House at the center just collapsed in on itself and the nation’s policy apparatus is covered in ash.

I don’t say that because I think the Comey-Russia scandal will necessarily lead to impeachment. I have no idea where the investigations will go.

I say it because White Houses, like all organizations, run on talent, and the Trump White House has just become a Human Resources disaster area.

We have seen White Houses engulfed by scandal before. But we have never seen a White House implode before it had the time to staff up. The Nixon, Reagan and Clinton White Houses had hired quality teams by the time their scandals came. They could continue to function, sort of, even when engulfed.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has hundreds of senior and midlevel positions to fill, and few people of quality or experience are going to want to take them.

Few people of any quality or experience are going to want to join a team that is already toxic. Nobody is going to want to become the next H. R. McMaster, a formerly respected figure who is now permanently tainted because he threw his lot in with Donald Trump. Nobody is going to want to join a self-cannibalizing piranha squad whose main activity is lawyering up.

That means even if the Trump presidency survives, it will be staffed by the sort of C- and D-List flora and fauna who will make more mistakes, commit more scandals and lead to more dysfunction.

Running a White House is insanely hard. It requires a few thousand extremely smart and savvy people who are willing to work crazy hours and strain their family lives because they fundamentally believe in the mission and because they truly admire the president.

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.

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.

How Trump May Save the Republic

Bret Stephens, writing for the New York Times:

The question in the title of Timothy Egan’s latest column for The Times is “Who Will Save the Republic?” My answer is Donald Trump, of course.

I mean this in the Anna Sebastian sense — Madame Sebastian being the shrewd, sinister and very Teutonic mother played by Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, “Notorious.”

Anna’s adult son, Alexander (Claude Rains), is part of a group of well-heeled Nazis living and scheming revenge in Brazil when he marries Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful young woman he deems trustworthy because her father was a convicted German spy.

Too late, Alexander realizes that Alicia is really an American agent, and that exposure of the fact will mean certain death for him at the hands of his fellow Nazis. When he confesses the problem to mother, she responds with the most reproachful reassurance in movie history:

“We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity — for a time.”

Just so with our 45th president. His views are often malevolent, and his conduct might ultimately prove criminal. But we, too, are protected, for a time, by the enormity of his stupidity.

So much was clear back in January, when Trump dropped his refugee ban on the public, like a dunce trying to squash a snail by dropping a brick on it, only to have it land on his own foot.

There were constitutional ways by which the administration might have made good on some of its obnoxious immigration promises. Trump managed to alight on the unconstitutional ones. His loud embrace as a political candidate of a comprehensive Muslim ban sealed its fate in court once he was president.

Tuesday’s dismissal of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director fits the pattern. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that a man whose signature line in showbiz was “You’re fired” turns out to be spectacularly incompetent even in this respect.

The president’s letter dismissing Comey revealed more about the president’s legal anxieties than it did about the director’s job performance. It was announced before it was delivered. Its supposed rationale — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo on Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case — could not withstand a cursory examination of Trump’s motives. It had the effect of rehabilitating Comey’s once-tarnished reputation, while tarnishing Rosenstein’s once-sound one.

What was meant to quash an investigation into the obscure tangle of Trump’s possible Russia connections is now certain to revive it. The Senate will be hard-pressed to confirm an F.B.I. director who is an obvious political lackey. And anyone who takes the job will feel honor bound to pursue the investigation with maximum legal and bureaucratic muscle.

This is how we save the Republic — one self-inflicted Trumpian political wound after another.

All the more so since Trump seems to be digging in. The president is now threatening to cancel all live White House press briefings while issuing ill-concealed threats against the former director. On Friday, he tweeted that “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Hang on: There could be tapes? Can someone please ask Bill Safire in heaven to drop in on Richard Nixon in purgatory so they can walk us through this one together?

In corporate life, the usual practice when firing someone is either to say nothing or to say something nice, on the theory that the unlucky person is likelier to respond in kind. Trump has now given his former director the opportunity and incentive to do the opposite. Congressional hearings, should they happen, will be fun.

What makes all this so much more astonishing is how unnecessary it is, at least from Trump’s point of view.

If the president has nothing to fear from a Russia investigation, then why not let it run its course toward exoneration or irrelevance? If he does have something to fear, then Comey — distrusted by Republicans and Democrats alike — would have been his ideal foil. Trump’s critics can now take heart that, no, we won’t soon be moving on from l’affaire russe.

On Friday, I asked an astute source with long experience in the intelligence community if he suspects a smoking gun.

“I would guess there is something on paper or derived through witness questioning that has given the bureau an opening, assuming that Trump’s actions are in response to growing concern about the Russian probe,” he replied, while adding the caveat, “Since we’re talking about Trump, a rampantly insecure ego, such an assumption isn’t mandatory.”

I’d add another caveat: Incompetence may protect us — but as Madame Sebastian knew, only for a while. The blunders may often be self-defeating, but not always. Trump is our president. The enormity of his stupidity, inescapably, is also our own.

Presence of Russian photographer in Oval Office raises alarms

Carol Morello and Greg Miller, writing in the Washington Post:

A photographer for a Russian state-owned news agency was allowed into the Oval Office on Wednesday during President Trump’s meeting with Russian diplomats, a level of access that was criticized by former U.S. intelligence officials as a potential security breach.

The officials cited the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been brought into the Oval Office while hidden in cameras or other electronics. Former U.S. intelligence officials raised questions after photos of Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were posted online by the Tass news agency.

Among those commenting on the issue was former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen. Responding to a question posed online about whether it was a sound decision to allow the photographer into the Oval Office, Cohen replied on Twitter: “No it was not.” He declined to elaborate when reached by phone.

The White House played down the danger, saying that the photographer and his equipment were subjected to a security screening before he and it entered the White House grounds. The Russian “had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room,” a senior administration official said.

Other former intelligence officials also described the access granted to the photographer as a potential security lapse, noting that standard screening for White House visitors would not necessarily detect a sophisticated espionage device.

The administration official also said the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer. Russian officials had described the individual as Lavrov’s official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for Tass.

“We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency,” the administration official said.

As a result, White House officials said they were surprised to see photos posted online showing Trump not only with Lavrov but also smiling and shaking hands with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

More here.

And there you have it. The White House officials were surprised. Who the hell is controlling security over there?

Sally Yates Tells Senators She Warned Trump About Michael Flynn

Matt Apuzzo and Emmarie Huetteman, reporting in the New York Times:

Less than a week into the Trump administration, Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general, hurried to the White House with an urgent concern. The president’s national security adviser, she said, had lied to the vice president about his Russian contacts and was vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.

“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” Ms. Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”

But President Trump did not immediately fire the adviser, Michael T. Flynn, over the apparent lie or the susceptibility to blackmail. Instead, Mr. Flynn remained in office for 18 more days. Only after the news of his false statements broke publicly did he lose his job on Feb. 13.

Ms. Yates’s testimony, along with a separate revelation Monday that President Barack Obama had warned Mr. Trump not to hire Mr. Flynn, offered a more complete public account of Mr. Flynn’s stunning fall from one of the nation’s most important security posts.

It also raised fresh doubts about Mr. Trump’s judgment in keeping Mr. Flynn in place despite serious Justice Department concerns. White House officials have not fully explained why they waited so long.

“I don’t have any way of knowing what, if anything, they did,” Ms. Yates said. “If nothing was done, then certainly that would be concerning.”

At the heart of Monday’s testimony were Mr. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. Mr. Flynn denied that they had discussed American sanctions, an assertion echoed by Vice President Mike Pence and the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. But senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials knew otherwise. Mr. Kislyak, like many foreign diplomats, was under routine surveillance, and his conversations with Mr. Flynn were recorded, officials have said. Investigators knew that Mr. Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions.

Much of what Ms. Yates said was previously known, but her testimony offered a dramatic firsthand account of a quickly unfolding scandal at the highest level of government.

On Jan. 26, Ms. Yates said, she called the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, regarding “a very sensitive matter” that they could discuss only in person. Later that day, at the White House, she warned Mr. McGahn that White House officials were making statements “that we knew not to be the truth.” Ms. Yates said she explained to Mr. McGahn how she knew Mr. Flynn’s statements were untrue, though she did not go into details Monday, citing concerns about sensitive information.

“Why does it matter to D.O.J. if one White House official lies to another White House official?” Mr. McGahn asked at a second meeting the next day, according to Ms. Yates.

It was not just a political concern, Ms. Yates replied. Intelligence services constantly look for leverage against foreign officials. If Mr. Flynn lied to his bosses, and Russian officials knew it, Moscow could use it as leverage against him. “This is a classic technique they would use going back to the Soviet era,” said James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, who testified alongside Ms. Yates.

Mr. McGahn also asked Ms. Yates for the underlying evidence, she said, and she told him how he could see it.

Nearly two weeks later, The Washington Post reported that Ms. Yates had expressed concerns to the White House about Mr. Flynn. He was fired, with the White House citing “an eroding level of trust.”

But it was clear from Ms. Yates’s testimony that the White House had known for weeks that Mr. Flynn had been untruthful. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said that if the information had never been made public, “Michael Flynn might still be sitting in the White House as national security adviser.”

Even since leaving office, Mr. Flynn has been a persistent headache for Mr. Trump. He retroactively registered as a foreign lobbyist and failed to disclose Russian contacts, resurrecting questions about the administration’s close ties to Russia. The F.B.I. is investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Mr. Trump blamed Obama officials on Monday, noting on Twitter that it was his predecessor’s administration that gave Mr. Flynn a security clearance.

“General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” Mr. Trump wrote.

Mr. Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has long been a controversial figure. He has incorrectly declared that Shariah, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States and once wrote on Twitter, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” His dubious assertions were so common that subordinates called them “Flynn facts.”

Mr. Obama fired Mr. Flynn from his defense intelligence job. And two days after the election, he warned Mr. Trump against making Mr. Flynn his national security adviser, two former Obama administration officials said on Monday. Mr. Obama said he had profound concerns about Mr. Flynn’s taking such a job.

Mr. Spicer sought to cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s warning, noting that the Obama administration had renewed Mr. Flynn’s security clearance in April 2016, well after his departure from the D.I.A.

“If President Obama was truly concerned about General Flynn, why didn’t they suspend his security clearance, which they approved just months earlier?” Mr. Spicer asked during his daily press briefing.

But Mr. Spicer’s comments also called into question the Trump transition team’s own assessment of Mr. Flynn. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who led the transition in the days after the election, wanted Mr. Flynn to be slotted as director of national intelligence, a cabinet-level job but one with narrower responsibilities. Mr. Christie had reservations about Mr. Flynn that he shared with Mr. Trump, according to three people close to the transition.

The wiretapped conversations between Mr. Flynn and Mr. Kislyak remain classified, and Ms. Yates avoided even acknowledging them. Senators, though, were far less circumspect in both their questions and their commentary.

Though Ms. Yates said she had expected the White House to act on her concerns, she spared the Trump administration outright criticism for not doing so. That is because she was fired on Jan. 30 after refusing to defend the president’s executive order banning refugees and travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. She said she was not sure what the White House had done after she left.

More here.

Trump has a dangerous disability

George F. Will, writing in the Washington Post:

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.

In February, acknowledging Black History Month, Trump said that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Because Trump is syntactically challenged, it was possible and tempting to see this not as a historical howler about a man who died 122 years ago, but as just another of Trump’s verbal fender benders, this one involving verb tenses.

Now, however, he has instructed us that Andrew Jackson was angry about the Civil War that began 16 years after Jackson’s death. Having, let us fancifully imagine, considered and found unconvincing William Seward’s 1858 judgment that the approaching Civil War was “an irrepressible conflict,” Trump says:

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Library shelves groan beneath the weight of books asking questions about that war’s origins, so who, one wonders, are these “people” who don’t ask the questions that Trump evidently thinks have occurred to him uniquely? Presumably they are not the astute “lot of,” or at least “some,” people Trump referred to when speaking about his February address to a joint session of Congress: “A lot of people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber.” Which demotes Winston Churchill, among many others.

What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.

The United States is rightly worried that a strange and callow leader controls North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea should reciprocate this worry. Yes, a 70-year-old can be callow if he speaks as sophomorically as Trump did when explaining his solution to Middle Eastern terrorism: “I would bomb the s— out of them. . . . I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.”

Much more here.

100 Days of Noise From Donald Trump

Via the Editorial Board of the New York Times:

It was fitting that President Trump closed out his first 100 days in another bumbling attack on Obamacare, trying and failing to jam a bill through the House this week that had no chance of passing the Senate, just to create the illusion of action.

The sorry saga of health care under this president bears all the Trumpian hallmarks that Americans are learning to expect: the dishonest campaign promise (“health care for everyone”); the clownish attempts to write a bill; the miniaturization of Paul Ryan (remember that guy?); the rivalrous White House confederation of Bannonite anarchists and glittering cosmopolites; the dearth of nonwhites and nonmales at the table; the absence of any strategy and of any vision beyond “winning.”

All that’s needed to complete the Trump pattern is the insultingly obvious effort by the president’s kin to cash in. A health care summit meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, maybe.

If only this administration could simply play as comedy, as pratfalls and double takes. Unfortunately, the saga of health care also reveals the capacity of Mr. Trump to do harm, through incompetence and indifference, if not effective action. Rather than build on the foundation of the Affordable Care Act, and take credit for a strengthened system, Mr. Trump is causing the prospect of nationally affordable care to recede through malign neglect.

Governing, so far, has turned out to be more than Mr. Trump can manage. He didn’t know very much coming into the job of president, including how little he knew, and the extent of his own ignorance has come as a continual surprise to him. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he famously marveled the first time he was preparing to fail at passing legislation. He expressed the same wonder of discovery at the complexity of North Korea.

In private life, Mr. Trump was accustomed to negotiations based on the simple reality that everyone involved shared the same objective: profit. He has struggled to bargain with legislators, who want to satisfy many constituencies and have conflicting notions of the national interest. In that sense, legislative deals require far more art than commercial ones, and for that reason, Mr. Trump has found himself in over his head. This week, after congressional Democrats called his bluff, threatening a government shutdown rather than acceding to his bluster, he slunk away from a demand that Congress start paying for his wasteful border wall — you know, the one Mexico has refused to pay for.

“I thought it would be easier,” Mr. Trump admitted about his job to Reuters this week.

Does he show any signs of learning on the job? In fact, yes. He has backed off dangerous pledges like tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and accusing China of manipulating its currency. He replaced his first national security adviser — the cartoonish Michael Flynn, who turned out to have been on not only the Russian payroll but also the Turkish one — with the formidable Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

But since his risible assertion of “American carnage” in the streets during his Inaugural Address, Mr. Trump has continually fomented fear and bullied vulnerable groups, particularly unauthorized immigrants. He has shown no interest in reaching beyond the minority of Americans who elected him, one reason his approval ratings are the lowest on record for a president at this point in his term.

And what of his central campaign pledge, to make America great again, presumably by creating vast numbers of jobs for those who helped elect him? This may prove the emptiest of his promises. The giant infrastructure program, which would indeed yield jobs, is nowhere to be seen. In its place are proposed tax cuts to benefit mainly the wealthy and photo-op executive orders to deregulate energy businesses that, even if sustained by the courts — a long shot — will merely enrich the likes of the Koch brothers.

Yet if his ratings are dismal, the other measure Mr. Trump has always lived by — his revenue — is booming, as he uses the presidency to promote his properties. His determination to leverage his office to expand his commercial empire is the only objective to which Americans, after 100 days, can be confident this president will stay true.