Jul. 23

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Trump Launches All Out War against Mueller

The gloves are off. Donald Trump and his aides and lawyers are now in a full-blown media war against special counsel Robert Mueller. The trigger was clearly the news that Mueller is looking at Trump's businesses, possibly in connection with money laundering and other offenses, some of which may have strong connections to Russia. Trump also hinted that if Mueller looked at his businesses, that would exceed his authority and might be reason for Trump to fire him.

Another front in the Trump-Mueller war is Trump's effort to dig up oppo research on Mueller's team. Some of the lawyers Mueller hired have made donations to Democratic candidates in the past. These include Andrew Weissman and Jeannie Rhee, two of Mueller's top lawyers. Trump is going to accuse them of being completely and totally biased against him and unfit to serve on Mueller's team. These statements could be laying the basis for Trump to fire Mueller, even though Mueller himself was a registered Republican when he was appointed FBI director in 2001 and probably still is.

Legally, Trump doesn't actually have the authority to do that; only the highest person in the Justice Dept. who has not recused himself or herself can do so. But what if Trump just calls Mueller one day and says: "You're fired." We could have a constitutional crisis at that point. Alternatively, Trump could ask Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Muller. Rosenstein would almost certainly resign rather than do it. Ditto for #3, Rachel Brand. Trump could work his way down the pecking order until he got to a summer intern who ranks 148th and who was willing to fire Mueller. That wouldn't be a legal crisis, but it might be a political one.

The War on Mueller may convince Trump supporters that the special counsel is unfairly picking on a duly elected president, but it may not convince Congress. Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said yesterday: "I think Mr. Mueller is a well-respected person and he ought to be left to do his job." (more below)

On the television front, Trump has sent his lawyer, Jay Sekulow, to appear on TV to say that Mueller's appointment was tainted because it was based on illegally leaked information. In short, Trump is throwing everything he has got at the wall to see what will stick, if anything. (V)

Members of Both Parties Warn Trump to Lay Off Mueller

As Donald Trump weighs whether or not to fire Robert Mueller, there are three groups whose opinions matter: Congressional Democrats, Congressional Republicans, and the base. The Dems are a lost cause, and the base is probably with him no matter what (and if they're not, all is lost, anyhow). That means that what the President really has to think about is how Congressional Republicans will respond to any anti-Mueller actions he might take. And judging by the remarks of several prominent members, they will not abide by any shenanigans.

It is not a surprise that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) believes that, "Firing Bob Mueller without cause is an attack on the rule of law," or that Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) predicts that, "It would prompt a firestorm." What is a surprise is that they appear to be in lockstep with Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who imagines that, "If he fired Bob Mueller, I think you'd see a tremendous backlash response from both Democrats but also House Republicans." Or Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), who says that, "I think the best advice would be to let Robert Mueller do his job." Or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who pooh-poohed Trump's plan to dig up dirt on Mueller, declaring that, "I don't think it's going to influence Bob Mueller's work one way or another. I'm pretty confident just knowing him and knowing the way he conducts himself he doesn't wake up in the morning and read those things and have them impact his ability to do his job. He's going to do his job."

These warnings are unambiguous, and they're coming from very different parts of the GOP caucus, so Trump would be wise to heed them. He should also remember that (1) his colleagues in Congress are going to be very wary of being dragged down by him, (2) his colleagues in Congress would much rather have Mike Pence in the White House, and (3) his colleagues in Congress might one day conclude that the base will also be pretty happy with Pence, and that a swap won't do them that much harm, politically. If congressional Republicans do somehow reach that conclusion, then Trump's in deep trouble. (Z)

Trump Explodes on Twitter

Like clockwork, President Trump woke up on Saturday morning, reached for his phone, and erupted on Twitter. His primary subject, of course, was the new revelations about Attorney General Jeff Sessions:

A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post,this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions.These illegal leaks, like Comey's, must stop!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

So many people are asking why isn't the A.G. or Special Council looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 e-mails deleted?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

There is much to digest in those 420 or so characters. There's no evidence, first of all, that Hillary Clinton or James Comey committed a crime of any sort; in the former case, that question was looked into just a little bit, as you may have heard. It's also the case that unlike Donald Trump, neither Hillary Clinton nor James Comey is currently the President of the United States, which changes the equation a fair bit. As to pardon power, the President himself has been raising that question. He's right that there's no need to ask that question unless a crime has potentially been committed (you can bet that Barack Obama was not exploring the limits of the pardon power six months into his term). And so, The Donald has just done a nice job of telling us that he senses he's in deep trouble.

Meanwhile, it is also very noticeable what he doesn't say in these tweets. There is not a single word actually defending Sessions, or suggesting that the new information reported by the Washington Post on Friday is false. Even if Hillary Clinton and James Comey are guilty of all manner of crimes, that is not an affirmative defense of Sessions, it's Whataboutism. Indeed, the third of the three tweets (the one where 'Counsel' is misspelled) is something of a slam on the AG, so if Sessions naively held onto hope the President would have his back, he should be disabused of that notion now.

These weren't the totality of the President's output Saturday morning. There was also this:

My son Donald openly gave his e-mails to the media & authorities whereas Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted (& acid washed) her 33,000 e-mails!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

There are those 33,000 e-mails again. And once again, even if they contained 33,000 different state secrets, all of them delivered directly to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak's inbox, they don't excuse Trump Jr.'s behavior. Also, Junior only "openly gave his e-mails" when he knew that the New York Times was five minutes away from publishing them.

The president also veered several times into the realm of delusion as he tweeted:

The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist,Al-Baghdadi.Their sick agenda over National Security

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

Sean Spicer is a wonderful person who took tremendous abuse from the Fake News Media - but his future is bright!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

ObamaCare is dead and the Democrats are obstructionists, no ideas or votes, only obstruction. It is solely up to the 52 Republican Senators!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

The Republican Senators must step up to the plate and, after 7 years, vote to Repeal and Replace. Next, Tax Reform and Infrastructure. WIN!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

The Times' story was vetted by the Pentagon, and neither they nor any other government official expressed any concern about it until Trump piped up on Saturday morning. As to Sean Spicer, nobody knows what his future holds, but if you were forced to choose between "bright" and "unemployable in politics" to describe it, the smart money is on the latter. As to the Obamacare tweets, it's hardly even necessary to point out how divorced from reality they are, most obviously that no "WIN!" is on the horizon, much less "WINS!" on three issues where Trump has done nothing but spin his wheels since taking office.

Now, it is true that fisking Trump's tweets is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. But we present this wide selection from Saturday because they speak to a man who—whether he realizes it or not—is communicating a sense that he is exceedingly anxious, and is feeling desperate. Judging by the headlines on Saturday, Trump's nemesis—the media—agrees that he's right to feel that way. A selection:

In short, it's a very difficult time for the President. No wonder he needs to play so much golf. (Z)

House and Senate Reach Agreement on Sanctioning Russia

After a month of intensive negotiations, the House has agreed to a modified version of the Senate's bill to sanction Russia for meddling in the election last year. The bill also sanctions Iran and North Korea, something the Republicans insisted on as the price for agreeing to sanction Russia. The bill puts Congress on a collision course with Donald Trump, since it strips from the president the power to lift sanctions on his own. Instead, he must get permission from Congress, and if there is one thing Trump doesn't do it is get permission from anyone, ever.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said he was pleased with the bill, though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was somewhat less pleased. Still, there is a good chance both chambers will pass it before the August recess. If Trump vetoes it, Congress will not have much time to override his veto, assuming the Republicans are even willing to stick their necks out and do that. An override would make Trump extremely angry, and few Republican senators or representatives want to incur the full force of his wrath. Of course, if they all vote to override (or most of them do), it will be hard for him to punish them en masse. So, it's likely that if an override does happen, it will be by a huge majority. (V)

Special Counsel Memo: A Sitting President Can Be Indicted

A 56-page special-counsel memo reads in part:

It is proper, constitutional, and legal for a federal grand jury to indict a sitting president for serious criminal acts that are not part of, and are contrary to, the president's official duties.

The counsel in question is not Robert Mueller, but Kenneth Starr, who investigated Bill Clinton for years. The memo was written by Ronald Rotunda, a respected professor of constitutional law and ethics. In 1974, special counsel Leon Jaworski also received a memo from his staff saying that they could indict a sitting president, in his case Richard Nixon.

Many commentators are now saying that Robert Mueller doesn't have the authority to indict Donald Trump, even if he discovers evidence of major crimes, but these memos argue that such a conclusion is wrong. In fact, nothing in the Constitution or federal statutes say that sitting presidents are immune to prosecution. These memos, especially the Starr one, suggest that politics, rather than the law, are at play here.

Also noteworthy is the 1997 Supreme Court case Clinton v. Jones, in which a unanimous Court ruled that a civil suit against the president could go forward while he was in office. If the Court believed that a suit by a private party claiming damages for acts not related to the office could go forward, it would seem inconsistent to say that an indictment for an alleged criminal act could not go forward. (V)

Scaramucci Rewrites History

In TrumpWorld, it does not matter if you said something in the past that might be a tad inconvenient today. You simply deny you ever said the original thing. New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci has been on the job for only one day, but he clearly already knows how it works, because he spent much of his first day deleting old tweets from his Twitter account that have suddenly become inconvenient.

Among the past thoughts that Scaramucci would prefer that you forget:

Scaramucci says that he deleted the tweets because his "past views evolved." Uh, huh. Donald Trump also weighed in, amongst his many Saturday-morning tweets:

In all fairness to Anthony Scaramucci, he wanted to endorse me 1st, before the Republican Primaries started, but didn't think I was running!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

That's a little hard to buy, given Scaramucci's early and outspoken support for Jeb Bush, along with his 2015 declaration—in a Fox News moment that he cannot simply erase with a push of the delete button—that Trump is a "political hack." Still, "Mooch," as he is known, should be grateful that he has a good job now since Trump is not a big fan of "let bygones be bygones," even with extensive use of the delete key. (Z)

How to Read News Stories with Anonymous Sources

Increasingly many news stories these days cite anonymous sources. There are many reasons sources don't want to be named, most often because they are leaking a story that contradicts the official story or else are claiming that some official is lying. If the source were named in the story, he or she would be fired and/or prosecuted almost immediately. But the fact that a story uses unnamed sources doesn't mean that it is wrong. Five Thirty Eight has a nice guide to evaluating news stories based on anonymous sources. Here are the major points.

As an example of the last point, consider the Washington Post's story in May that Donald Trump had discussed highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador. NSA Herbert McMaster was quoted as responding "At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly." This is a typical nondenial denial. The Post never said they discussed military matters, just classified information. In effect, McMaster confirmed the story without saying so in so many words. McMaster could have said: "The president did not disclose any classified information," but he didn't. The bottom line is that carefully written stories by reputable reporters who say they have half a dozen sources and who write for reputable outlets are often on target, even though an occasional error creeps in. (V)

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