Former White House aide Steve Bannon kicked off the week with a bold declaration that proved itself more prescient by the day: that Trump firing former FBI Director James Comey was the biggest mistake in “modern political history.”
Perhaps not modern political history, but likely of Trump’s presidency. Bannon, a consummate blowhard and armchair philosopher, likely got that characterization right, not so much in the sense of a historical reference point than as a matter of predictive insight.
After all, Bannon was in position to know the implications of such a decision. By Thursday, we learned that he was among several aides who helped save Attorney General Jeff Sessions from being canned after Trump’s fury erupted the instant he learned a special counsel had been appointed to take over the Russia probe. Trump, apparently so unsettled by the prospect of an inquiry not directly under his control, hurled a stream of insults at Sessions, labeling him an “idiot” and lamenting Sessions’ hiring as one of the worst decisions of his presidency.
That article, more than just dishing some savory nuggets from a quaking Oval Office, added to the complex web of legal complications that Trump has ensnared himself in since the moment he took office. Not only did he fire Comey to relieve the “pressure” of the Russia investigation, he also wanted to ax Sessions so he could regain the reins of the probe. In the meeting, in fact, he pressured Sessions to resign in front a room full of witnesses—taking the case for obstruction beyond the he-said-he-said nature of Comey’s charges against Trump. Bannon and Reince Priebus—both of whom no longer work in the West Wing—were among the advisers who saved Sessions’ job by convincing Trump that canning him would be disastrous in the wake of the two already cataclysmic departures of Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump’s White House still hasn’t escaped the weight of those dismissals and probably never will, no matter how hard his team may try. And they’ve been trying, desperately. In fact, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spent the lion’s share of her energy this week prosecuting Comey from the podium, an unprecedented politicization of her communications function. She accused him of violating his FBI employment agreement and the Privacy Act of 1974 by sharing the personal memo he allegedly wrote on an FBI computer.
Though Sanders stopped short of directly calling on the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Comey, she added, “I think the facts of the case are very clear.”
Sanders had a big week—perhaps even historic, in the ignominious sense of the word. Not only did she use her White House perch to accuse Comey of criminal acts but she also labeled a tweet from ESPN’s Jemele Hill criticizing Trump a “fireable offense.” Apparently the White House now gives public direction to the attorney general on criminal inquiries and intimately involves itself in the human resources decisions of America’s businesses. And if there’s one thing America’s companies need, its personnel advice from Trump’s White House.
Of course, part of Sanders’ intent was to tidy up Trump’s own personnel flub. Her itemization of Comey’s alleged criminal violations provided a revisionist rationale for his termination outside of the one Trump offered on national news months ago: Russia.
It’s little wonder the White House spent so much time smearing Comey this week as a cascade of Russia news washed over it. Honestly, there are so many prongs to the investigation that it’s nearly impossible to keep track. But if you were to categorize advancements in terms of building the case for collusion, obstruction, and convincing key witnesses to turn on the White House, then all three saw major developments this week.
As I noted above, Trump’s Oval Office tirade over the special counsel adds another layer for investigators to peel back on the obstruction front. In terms of collusion, we learned that Mueller’s team is homing in on the social media aspect of Russian interference in 2016—including the hundreds of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts Russia used to spread disinformation, the fake rallies and protests Russian operatives organized in America from remote locations, and the Facebook ads Russia bought to target specific voters. The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday that the detailed nature of the information Facebook has turned over to Mueller suggests he’s now obtained a search warrant, a powerful investigative tool:
The information Facebook shared with Mr. Mueller included copies of the ads and details about the accounts that bought them and the targeting criteria they used, the people familiar with the matter said. Facebook policy dictates that it would only turn over “the stored contents of any account,” including messages and location information, in response to a search warrant, some of them said.
Russia’s broad manipulation of social media tools to influence voters goes toward proving the method of collusion; the next step would be to figure out how operatives determined who to target demographically and where to target them geographically. In other words, who gave the Russians that direction?
Finally, investigators are also laying the groundwork to turn the screws on Michael Flynn, who continues to be a main player in the ties that bind Trump and Russia. In classic form, prosecutors are bearing down on Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, a purveyor of Twitter conspiracy theories who was intimately involved with the day-to-day operations of his father’s lobbying firm. The idea here is to pressure the elder Flynn to cooperate with the investigation in order to shield his son from criminal liability.
“Any time a family member is identified as a subject that does increase pressure,” said Peter White, a former federal prosecutor. “In the typical parent-child relationship the last thing any parent would want is for their child to get in trouble for something they initiated.”
With any luck, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree, since Flynn Sr.’s list of potentially prosecutable infractions seems to grow by the week. It turns out he not only lied about his Russia contacts and failed to disclose that he was on the payroll of both Russia and Turkey, but while serving as Trump’s national security adviser, he also promoted a controversial for-profit nuclear power plan worth billions that he had ties to in the private sector. (Did we mention that while Flynn was pushing the deal, he was joined by Bannon and Jared Kushner in a meeting with the King of Jordan just days before Trump’s inauguration? Both Flynn and Kushner are amassing a bevy of problematic personal business dealings for people who were set to take powerful government posts.)
Finally, amid a government scandal that is growing so massive it feels like it could envelop nearly all of Trump’s core campaign team, Congressional Republicans finally found their line in sand: Trump negotiating with Democrats. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted:
Trump gave succor to neo-Nazis, boasted of groping women, attacked the integrity of the judicial system, fired the FBI director to stymie the Russia probe, boasted about his genital size on national television, attacked racial and religious minorities and labeled women all manner of vulgarities.
And, through it all, Republicans stuck with Trump.
Well no more, my friends. Whether it’s about the debt ceiling or Dreamers, Trump talking to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer is just one step too far.
Is it the hill Republicans want to die on? Probably not. Don’t expect to see them block Trump’s judicial nominees or do anything that would send a meaningful message—the days of Republicans planting their flag in the sand and defending its sacred ground are long gone. If there’s not an electoral consequence, grumbling and whining is likely the most we’ll get.
But at the very least, the political environment might be getting so intolerable for Republican members that, rather than standing for something, they may actually flee elected office en masse. That’s what’s keeping the GOP leadership up at night. The fact that Trump’s uniquely incompetent White House was and still may be teeming with people subject to Russian blackmail? Not so much.