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Fear and Loathing in the Trump White House

Donald Trump is off to Paris, where he will attend Bastille Day events
with Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France. But even four
thousand miles away, he won’t be able to escape the continuing fallout
from the news that his son, Donald Trump, Jr., met last year with a
Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya on the promise of obtaining
dirt about Hillary Clinton.

On Wednesday afternoon, Chuck Grassley, the Republican head of the
Senate Judiciary Committee,
announced that he and Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, had
agreed to subpoena Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, to
appear at a public hearing next week. “He”—Manafort—“was present at the
meeting that we’ve all read about,” Grassley said by way of explanation,
referring to the meeting with Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016, which
Manafort had attended, along with Trump, Jr., and Jared Kushner, Trump’s
son-in-law. There was no immediate word about whether Manafort, who had
previously offered to testify in a closed session, would agree to answer
questions about the sit-down, or whether he would take the Fifth.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from
South Carolina,
pressed Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to replace James Comey as director of
the F.B.I., to say that Trump, Jr., should have informed the F.B.I. that
he’d been offered information from Russia. Although Wray wouldn’t use
the exact words that Graham demanded, he did say, “Any threat or effort
to interfere with our elections from any nation-state or any non-state
actor is the kind of thing the F.B.I. would want to know.”

To be sure, there is still no sign that Republicans in Washington are
breaking from Trump in a meaningful way. The typical Republican member
of Congress might privately wish that Vice-President Mike Pence could
replace Trump, but is still far too wary of alienating Trump’s core
supporters (and Fox News) to get out in front of the pack. But the
e-mails that Trump, Jr., released this week prompted a reaction unlike
any prior development in the Trump-Russia story. Even Representative
Trey Gowdy, the Party attack dog who orchestrated some of the Benghazi
hearings during the Obama Administration, cried foul. ”Here we are
beginning another week, this one in July, with a new revelation about
Russia,” Gowdy
groused on Fox News on Tuesday night. He went on to lament that people close to
Trump have had “amnesia” about their dealings with people connected to
Russia, and, to the evident surprise of the show’s host, Martha
MacCallum, he added, “This drip, drip, drip is undermining the
credibility of this Administration.”

Gowdy’s words shouldn’t be interpreted as a moral condemnation, or even
a tacit admission that there has been wrongdoing. They are all about
politics. Republicans such as Gowdy aren’t upset about the confirmation
that Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager all leapt at the
chance to acquire kompromat about Clinton. Instead, they’re dismayed
that the White House has failed to come up with a Russia story it can
stick to—one that G.O.P. politicians can defend publicly without having
to fear, every day, that it is about to be debunked by the Times or
the Washington Post.

In short, there is a Republican crisis of confidence in the
Administration—and it’s no wonder, given the portrayals of life inside
the White House that have appeared since the Trump, Jr., story broke.
From the very beginning, of course, the Trump White House has been
characterized by internal divisions, backbiting, and dysfunction. But in
recent days, things appear to have gotten ever worse. Here’s the scene,
according to Politico:

One Trump adviser said the White House is “essentially helpless”
because the conduct happened during an “anything goes” campaign that had
few rules. This person said he had spoken to several people in the White
House on Tuesday and that “none of them knew anything about Donald Trump
Jr.’s meetings,” despite the fact that top adviser Jared Kushner was
also present for the controversial Trump Tower sit-down.

As I noted yesterday, the White House conspicuously
failed to rush to the defense of Trump, Jr., on Tuesday after he posted
a self-incriminating e-mail chain about his meeting with Veselnitskaya.
It was only on Wednesday morning, after Trump, Jr., had appeared on Sean
Hannity’s Fox News show, that his father came to his defense on Twitter,
writing: “My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open,
transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political
history. Sad!” Later in the day, Trump told Reuters, “I think many
people would have held that meeting.”

Politico reported that Trump has been “using his relatively light
schedule” this week “to watch TV and fume about the latest scandal.”
No big surprise there: indeed, those words could have been written at
virtually any point since January. However, in addition to berating his
enemies in the ”fake news” media, Trump has also “trained his ire on
Marc E. Kasowitz, his longtime lawyer, who is leading the team of
private lawyers representing him,” the Times reported.
The President, the newspaper said, has “has grown disillusioned by Mr.
Kasowitz’s strategy.”

The Times story also contained a potentially ominous development for
Trump: “The strain, though, exists on both sides. Mr. Kasowitz and his
colleagues have been deeply frustrated by the president.” And the
lawyers’ feelings toward Kushner, the paper reported, appear to have
moved well beyond frustration. “The president’s lawyers view Mr. Kushner
as an obstacle and a freelancer more concerned about protecting himself
than his father-in-law,” the story said. “While no ultimatum has been
delivered, the lawyers have told colleagues that they cannot keep
operating that way, raising the prospect that Mr. Kasowitz may resign.”

Obviously, it would be embarrassing for Trump if his longtime counsel,
who has represented him for years on tricky issues including Trump
University, were to bolt for the hills, forcing him to hire somebody
else. But that isn’t the only big change that could be in the works.
Also on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Kushner, Ivanka Trump, 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.” The
story said the Trump 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,” and the clear implication was that they hold Priebus, a
former head of Republican National Committee, responsible, either
directly or indirectly.

After the Post published the report, a White House spokesman denied
it, saying, “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.” For now, Priebus’s job appears safe. But with the pressure on
Trump mounting by the day, it seems likely that something will
eventually give.

The demand for an end to all this—from Trump, his family members, and
senior Republicans—is perfectly understandable: the Administration is on
the brink of paralysis. It’s doubtful whether personnel changes or a
change of lawyers would ultimately make much difference. If these past
few days have confirmed anything, it is this: there is now no escaping
the Russia story.


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