THE MORNING PLUM:
The Sunday shows confirmed an alarming development: Republicans in Congress do not feel any urgency to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, even though it has now been confirmed that President Trump tried to fire Mueller — and that the possibility of Trump trying to remove Mueller is seen as very real by Trump’s own advisers right now.
This sets up a possible worst-case scenario in the coming confrontation with Mueller that could take us into territory that is beyond anything this country endured during Watergate. To flesh this out, I spoke to Tim Weiner, the veteran journalist and author of a highly regarded, harshly critical history of the FBIthat chronicles Richard Nixon’s battles with the agency.
“We are two tweets away from an extraordinary constitutional crisis,” Weiner told me. “We are in a very dangerous point now in American political life.”
Over the weekend, after the New York Times reported that Trump ordered White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller last June and only backed down after McGahn threatened to quit, some Republicans did rhetorically warn Trump against trying to remove Mueller. But the real tell was in their suggestion that the danger has passed, meaning there is no need to pass legislation that would subject an effort to remove Mueller to review by a panel of judges.
“I see no evidence that Mr. Trump wants to fire Mr. Mueller now,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “The president listened to good advice from his advisers,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). “I don’t think there’s a need for legislation right now to protect Mueller,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
But the bulk of the reporting tells us that some sort of dramatic act toward the investigation does remain a real possibility. The Times also reported that Trump’s inner circle views it as an “omnipresent concern” that he could still move on Mueller, which he has been assuaged from doing by private assurances that the probe is almost over.
Meanwhile, The Post sheds new light on Trump’s thinking about the memo by Rep. Devin Nunes, which will bolster the alt-narrative in which the investigation is really a Deep-State Coup to remove the president: Trump has privately told advisers it could give him grounds for getting Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein out. This sets up a possible scenario in which a Trump loyalist is installed to oversee the probe instead of Rosenstein, and more generally, it shows Trump is still actively looking for ways to constrain the investigation.
This gets at an important way that the current moment is different from Watergate — a difference that may point to the possibility of a more alarming endgame. The Nunes memo shows there is a massive propaganda apparatus out there — one that reaches deep into the right-wing media and into the Congress that has been pushing the alt-narrative and would back up Trump if he does take drastic steps — that didn’t really exist in Nixon’s time.
“You certainly had very influential columnists who were diehard Nixon men,” Weiner told me. “But you did not have a Devin Nunes. You did not have a Sean Hannity. And you did not have an alternate universe of conspiracy theories, in which the FBI was painted as the equivalent of the Weather Underground.” Weiner added that we are seeing an “extraordinary echo chamber of dark matter that has gripped part of Washington and part of America.”
A large audience of GOP voters is getting bombarded by this dark matter, which may help explain why GOP lawmakers are carefully stopping short of acting to protect Mueller. As Jonathan Chait notes, that audience is regularly being told that Trump is the unfair victim of the probe. Worse, The Post’s report that Trump sees the Nunes memo as adequate reason to push out Rosenstein shows that Trump himself believes that drastic action to quash or constrain the investigation is justified and that his base would applaud it. We now know Trump refrained from targeting Mueller because his counsel threatened to quit and that his lawyers continue to constrain him from acting by telling him the probe is wrapping up anyway.
To be clear, Watergate involved criminality, which very well may not end up getting documented in the case of Trump or his top aides. And it’s also very possible that Trump will not end up trying to remove Mueller. But as Weiner pointed out to me, Trump has already waged war on the Justice Department in ways that have already been “extraordinarily reckless and dangerous for nigh on to a year.” And it’s too early to know how much more damage might be wrought, since we can’t predict the consequences of the differences between the Nixon era and our own — particularly that massive propaganda network and the influence it could have on Trump and/or congressional Republicans.
“We are seeing a repeat of Watergate at warp speed,” Weiner tells me. “If Trump moves to tear down the temple by firing Mueller and Rosenstein and putting in a platoon of stooges in charge of the administration of justice, and if Congress does nothing, then it will be beyond anything that Watergate presented.”
Sure, maybe none of this will end up happening. But go read David Leonhardt’s compilation of all the things Trump has already done to obstruct justice, and tell me whether you think that’s a slam-dunk bet.
* NUNES MEMO TARGETS ROSENSTEIN: The New York Times reports that the memo by Rep. Devin Nunes tars the Russia probe by noting that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein renewed a warrant for surveillance of a top Trump campaign official:
The renewal shows that the Justice Department under President Trump saw reason to believe that the associate, Carter Page, was acting as a Russian agent. But the reference to Mr. Rosenstein’s actions in the memo — a much-disputed document that paints the investigation into Russian election meddling as tainted from the start — indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the inquiry.
This hints at a possible effort to provide a rationale to remove Rosenstein and install a Trump loyalist to oversee the probe. The Times also reports that Trump is “frustrated” with Rosenstein.
* WHITE HOUSE WANTS NUNES MEMO RELEASED: On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” White House legislative affairs director Marc Short called for release of the Nunes memo, claiming that “if there are concerns that I think it would be helpful for Americans to know about, we would be open for that being released” and that “we typically prefer transparency.”
In reality, release of the Nunes memo is the opposite of genuine transparency. It is a selective release of info designed to give Republicans ammunition to shield Trump from accountability, even as the info necessary to gauge its accuracy likely will not be released.
* TRUMP WILL SUPPOSEDLY STRESS BIPARTISANSHIP: Bloomberg previews Trump’s State of the Union address, which will supposedly include a “bipartisan call” when he delivers it tomorrow night:
White House officials say the president will dial back his signature combative posture and instead frame his policy proposals — from immigration to infrastructure — as areas where Democrats and Republicans can work together. Trump will still take ample time to argue that the U.S. economy has been revitalized by policies that have had little to no bipartisan appeal, including the tax overhaul and efforts to curb regulations.
Trump will push big cuts in legal immigration for protecting “dreamers” and claim he alone made the economy he inherited from Obama great again, after depicting it as a hellscape. Bipartisan!
* TRUMP RULE COULD END UP EXPANDING MEDICAID: The Post reports that at least half a dozen red states are now considering opting into the Medicaid expansion, now that a new Trump administration rule allows work requirements:
If successful, though, the efforts could make hundreds of thousands of Americans newly eligible for health coverage, while also opening the door to Medicaid changes that could kick some current beneficiaries out of the program and reduce its benefits to recipients — broadening the program’s reach into red states but with a decidedly conservative bent.
This is what is needed to get red state holdouts to accept federal money to cover their own constituents. It’s a reminder that Democrats really must win back ground on the state level.
* FEW EXPECT BONUS FROM TRUMP TAX BILL: A new Reuters poll finds:
About 58 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said that large U.S. corporations or wealthy Americans stand to benefit most from the tax legislation. Just 13 percent said the middle class will benefit the most, the poll showed. … 24 percent of respondents in the poll said they expected to pay less tax under the new law; 27 percent said they expected to pay more; 23 percent said they expected no change.
Remember, this is the centerpiece of the GOP’s strategy for holding off Democrats in the midterms.
* LAWMAKERS PUSH WHITE HOUSE: David Nakamura reports that lawmakers in both parties want the Trump administration to narrow its demands for protecting the dreamers. But White House advisers defend the goal of nixing some types of family-based immigration:
They said the curbs to family immigration … would help offset a surge in legalized immigrants represented by the dreamers … Trump’s plan would terminate the ability of U.S. citizens to apply for green cards … for their parents and siblings. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimated that the proposal could annually drop the number of green cards by at least 288,000 — 36 percent of the total number last year.
Remember, the bipartisan deal offered to Trump would have barred parents of dreamers from getting legalization, but Trump rejected it, because it didn’t restrict legal immigration enough.
* LAWMAKERS URGE ‘COMPASSIONATE TONE’: Politico reports that lawmakers in both parties want Trump to strike a “compassionate tone” toward the dreamers in his State of the Union speech:
Trump plans to put the weight of the bully pulpit behind his immigration proposal on Tuesday night and attempt to rally lawmakers around his plan, but some Republicans already think the president’s wish list is too broad to find agreement in Congress. … Some senators have urged Trump to help them move toward a deal by striking a compassionate tone during his speech.
That would be nice, but what really matters is what Trump ends up demanding in exchange for protecting them — i.e., in exchange for doing what he has said he wants to do anyway.
* MILLENNIALS REALLY, REALLY DON’T LIKE TRUMP, GOP: A new NBC News poll findsthat only 19 percent of millennials approve of Trump, while 63 percent disapprove. And:
Millennials also hold an unfavorable view of the Republican Party (62 percent). Only a quarter (24 percent) have a favorable view of the GOP. The Democratic Party is viewed more favorably, but millennials overall are still split — 44 percent favorable to 43 percent unfavorable.
Millennials are on their way to becoming the largest voting bloc. It’s hard to know whether Trump is doing serious long-term damage to the GOP among them, but it’s a real possibility.
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