Remember the tax cut?
For months, Republicans have said they wanted to keep midterm election voters' attention focused on the economy and the tax law that they argue has helped boost it. The prospect that they could maintain that focus had already faded pretty badly. President Trump's invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit the White House in the fall has wiped out the remaining chance.
With Trump, it’s always all about him.
I WOULD, WOULDN’T I?
When Trump was asked on Monday, at his news conference with Putin in Helsinki, who he believed on Russian interference in the 2016 election — Putin or his own intelligence chiefs — what was most striking were not his specific words, but where his mind took him first:
“You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven't they taken the server?” he demanded, referring to the computer that handled the Democratic National Committee’s email system, which the FBI long ago made a complete copy of.
“I've been asking that for months and months, and I've been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server? And what is the server saying?
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me -- Dan Coats came to me and some others -- they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia.
“I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server.”
Trump didn’t stop there, rushing along to talk about “the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC” and “Hillary Clinton's emails. Thirty-three thousand emails gone -- just gone. I think in Russia, they wouldn't be gone so easily.”
“So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer; he offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer. OK?”
The whole exchange took less than a minute. The White House spent the better part of the week trying to clean up after it.
The chosen strategy began on Tuesday with Trump publicly offering a “clarification” in which he insisted that he meant to say, “I don't see any reason why it wouldn’t be” Russia.
As Noah Bierman wrote, the damage-control effort fell flat, undercut by Trump’s general lack of credibility as well as his own words — the ones on Monday as well as those he ad-libbed into his prepared text on Tuesday — “could be other people also,” he added, along with another insistence that there was “no collusion.”
The next day, the White House had to walk back another Trump remark. As Chris Megerian wrote, the president said “no,” after being asked by a reporter if he thought the Russians were continuing to try to interfere in U.S. elections.
That denial flatly contradicted warnings by Trump’s own top intelligence advisors, including Coats, the director of National Intelligence. So White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had to issue a statement insisting that Trump was merely trying to say no to answering any questions.
Then on Thursday, the White House disavowed Trump’s praise for that “incredible offer” that Putin made to have his investigators work with U.S. law enforcement. As was clear on Monday to everyone, except perhaps Trump, Putin’s offer came with strings attached — a Kremlin demand to interrogate Americans, including former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, whom Putin sees as an enemy.
The problem, as Trump’s vehemence on Monday made clear, is that no matter how many times his aides tell him to, and no matter the evidence they show him, he can’t accept the conclusion — attested to by the FBI, the CIA and a federal grand jury — that Putin ordered a vast effort by Kremlin agents to influence the election.
To Trump, accepting Russian interference as a fact inevitably means tarnishing what he sees as his great and single-handed victory in 2016 over the scoffers, the experts and the doubters.
He may from time to time grudgingly say he believes what the intelligence agencies tell him. But, inevitably, he retreats back to the network of debunked and discredited conspiracy theories — the server, the Pakistani, Hillary’s emails — that he has erected to ward off a truth he finds unacceptable.
A LOOMING CONFRONTATION
Any Trump meeting with Putin, of course, comes against the backdrop of Robert S. Mueller III’s continuing investigation of what the Russians did during the election and whether, in fact, Trump’s repeated claims of “no collusion” are accurate.
As Megerian wrote, last week’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for directing one part of the election-interference operation included extensively detailed allegations about precisely who in Moscow did what and how.
The indictment put federal prosecutors on record that they believe they could prove those allegations beyond a reasonable doubt if the case ever came to trial — an unlikely prospect since Putin is not likely ever to allow the defendants to fall into U.S. custody.
At the same time, Mueller’s probe is headed toward a key decision point, as Megerian and David Willman wrote. Trump’s lawyers, led by Rudy Giuliani, have resisted Mueller’s request to interview the president. So Mueller will need to decide soon whether to issue a subpoena.
A fight over a subpoena at this point would put Russia even further into the headlines in the runup to the midterm elections. Trump would almost certainly seize on any such battle to try to motivate his supporters, claiming that he was under attack. But the issue is equally likely to motivate Democrats, who already seem more enthusiastic about voting this fall.
THEY HAVE A TAPE
Ever since Watergate, no political scandal has been complete without a tape. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, has one — maybe more. Cohen recorded Trump talking to him, before the election, about a possible payment to Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who says she had a yearlong affair with Trump that began around the time his son, Barron, was born. Federal prosecutors have been looking at whether payments made to women who claimed affairs with Trump may have violated campaign finance laws. Depending on the details of what’s on the tape, which the prosecutors obtained when they seized Cohen’s records earlier this year, Trump could be implicated in any violation. And if Cohen has a tape, who else does?
BOXING IN THE REPUBLICANS
For Republican elected officials, the Cohen tape capped a two week period of Trump being overseas that offered nothing but trouble.
Even before his appearance with Putin, Trump had spent the week quarreling with U.S. allies, capped by remarks Sunday in which he characterized the Europe Union as a “foe.”
That rhetoric had already unnerved Republican foreign policy experts. Then came Monday’s praise of Putin.
As Sarah Wire wrote, Trump’s words brought stinging denunciations from the small, but dogged, corps of Trump critics within the GOP. “Disgraceful,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement from his home in Arizona. In Washington, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters he was “saddened” and “disappointed” by Trump’s comments.
More ominous for the White House was the criticism from usual defenders such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the silence from others. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was almost alone among prominent, elected Republicans in strongly defending Trump.
Polling during the week made clear one big reason: The public at large has reacted negatively to Trump’s handling of relations with Putin, but a majority of Republican voters reacted positively. That leaves Republican elected officials with bad choices: Criticize Trump and risk angering GOP voters; stick with him and risk alienating the rest of the electorate.
For the GOP, the best outcome would be for Russia to fade from the headlines until after November’s elections. That’s the one outcome, of course, that Trump has now foreclosed.
THE MIDTERM OUTLOOK
The reality is that for all the blazing headlines of recent months, very little appears to have shifted in how voters see their election choices.
Midterm elections are always, to some degree, a referendum on the incumbent president. This year, with a president who dominates news coverage more than any in recent history, that aspect of the election has blotted out almost everything else.
That’s what Mark Barabak found when he checked in on one of California’s hottest congressional elections — the race between incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Knight and his Democratic challenger, Katie Hill, in a district that covers a huge expanse of northern Los Angeles County, from Simi Valley up through the high desert.
The race features two attractive candidates. Knight is part of a political family that has represented much of that area for decades. Hill has been widely touted as a rising Democratic star. As Barabak found, none of that seems to matter much to voters, who mostly seem focused on the man in the White House.
Similar information came from a new poll, in another hot California race, this one in Orange County. The Monmouth University Poll released Tuesday showed a dead heat in the race between incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Harley Rouda.
The poll also made clear that for many voters, neither of the candidates matters as much as Trump. About two-thirds of voters said it was important to them to cast a vote that expressed how they felt about the president.
The way Trump keeps the spotlight focused on himself makes gaining attention even harder than normal for congressional candidates. That’s one reason why some of this year’s breakout political stars have gotten their start with viral videos, as Evan Halper reported.
THE SUPREME COURT FIGHT
Amid all the attention to Russia, the two parties continue to prepare for a battle in September over Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court.
This week, Democrats scored a tactical victory, as the White House withdrew a nominee to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defeat of Ryan Bounds marked the first loss Trump has suffered in his campaign to add conservative judges to the appellate courts. It came about because of controversial statements the nominee made in things he had written as a provocative conservative student in college. Critics called some of the comments racially insensitive, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African American Republican in the Senate, decided he couldn’t support the nomination.
As Sarah Wire wrote, the outcome fueled the campaign by Democrats to insist on getting all of Kavanaugh’s past written records. And it served as a reminder of how little margin for error the GOP has in the Senate.
If Kavanaugh gets confirmed he could have a major impact on gun laws, David Savage wrote. As a judge, he’s taken a broad view of the rights protected by the 2nd Amendment.
NARROWING THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
Of all the federal environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act has probably generated the most objections by conservatives. Over the years, they have put forward a long list of obscure animal and plant species — from the snail darter in the 1970s to the spotted owl in the 1990s to the dusky gopher frog today — that they say have improperly blocked economically important development projects.
Those conservative groups now have supplied top officials for the government agencies that enforce environmental laws. And this week, they issued a proposal to significantly cut back protections, especially for species considered “threatened,” the category just before “endangered.” As Louis Sahagun wrote, the proposals would have a major impact on development fights across the West.
DEMOCRATS SPAR OVER HOUSE LEADERSHIP POSITIONS
California Rep. Linda Sanchez announced this week that she’s bidding to rise in the House Democratic leadership. But while she’s the first to officially make such an announcement, she’s not the only one eyeing the possibilities. As Sarah Wire wrote, Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank also is mulling a potential bid for a leadership spot. So is Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland.
The immediate prize is the position of Caucus chair, currently held by Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, who lost his primary earlier this month. The longer-term stakes involve the effort by Democrats to get into position for the day when Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco steps down.
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