The Russia story roars back to life — Reviewing Week 4 of the Trump saga

Eight years ago today, President Obama signed the economic stimulus bill into law, marking a major legislative triumph for his new administration. 

Sixteen years ago at this point, President George W. Bush had submitted his tax cut plan to Congress and was negotiating what would become the No Child Left Behind law.

President Trump has had his main initiative — a temporary travel ban on visits from seven mostly Muslim countries — blocked by federal courts, has been forced to fire his national security advisor and had to withdraw his nominee for secretary of Labor, who faced rejection by senators of his own party. Legislative proposals are nowhere in sight.

Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

WHAT DID THE PRESIDENT KNOW?

Trump has had a pretty terrible week. His White House is far from the “fine-tuned machine” the president boasted of at his news conference yesterday.

But neither is the 45th president on the verge of collapse. Democrats who don’t think he can survive should remember that most of them didn’t think he would win the election, either. And people who have visions of Watergate-style hearings dancing in their heads might want to think about the origins of a key moment in that scandal: Sen. Howard Baker’s often-quoted line was originally intended as a defense of Richard Nixon.

Nixon’s opponents had lots of evidence of wrongdoing by people working for his reelection, Baker noted, but that wasn’t what mattered. The key question, he said, was, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

In the end, of course, to Baker’s dismay, the evidence showed that Nixon knew a lot about Watergate from a very early point. When that evidence became public, he had to resign.

But we’re very far from that in the gathering controversy about alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the election.

Lots of evidence shows that the Russians interfered in the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded they did so, at least in part, to help Trump. The FBI is looking at contacts between some people close to Trump and some Russian officials. But no one has proven that anyone in Trump’s orbit colluded in the Russian effort, let alone that Trump knew about such a plan.

At Thursday’s news conference, the president repeatedly evaded that key question, settling eventually — after being asked five times — on a lawyerly statement that “nobody I know of” had contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.

The firing of national security advisor Michael Flynn, who misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., revived attention to the issue and deepened already existing questions, about the Trump-Russia relationship, as David Cloud wrote. (Here’s a timeline of the Flynn controversy.)

But, just like Trump’s presidency, the Russia saga is at a very early stage.

“EROSION OF TRUST” — AND OF CLOUT

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn was fired because of an “erosion of trust.” But what may worry the White House more right now is an erosion on Capitol Hill. 

The clearest signal came from the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s nomination to be Labor secretary. 

The problems Puzder faced were serious: his hiring of an immigrant in the U.S. illegally as a housekeeper, decades-old allegations of having hit his wife and restiveness on the right about his previous support for immigration reform, among others.

But politically, his troubles were not necessarily more fatal than those that faced Betsy DeVos, who squeaked by into the job of Education secretary last week, or Rep. Tom Price, who won a party-line vote to become Secretary of Health and Human Services. 

Republicans held firm for the others, but they broke ranks on Puzder, with at least a dozen GOP senators expressing misgivings. The change had less to do with the nominee than with the president: Puzder’s fate gauges Trump’s loss of sway on Capitol Hill. That, in turn, is tied to his declining support among swing voters.

Trump’s job approval rating is at historic lows for a new president, with Americans deeply split on how they view him and deeply dug in on the subject. His core supporters love him, Democrats loathe him, and the small, but crucial, group of voters in between appears to have grown more skeptical.

Congressional Republicans increasingly worry about where the new administration is headed, as Lisa Mascaro wrote. Some are starting to distance themselves from Trump, not wanting to be too close in case his troubles worsen.

That’s why Republicans on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are slowly starting to back away from their previous reluctance to conduct a full-scale investigation of what Russia was up to and whether Trump aides were involved.

In the meantime, Republicans have been racing to help favored industries, moving to undo Obama-era regulations on pollution from mines, background checks for gun purchases by people with mental disabilities and requirements that U.S. companies disclose payments to officials overseas.

Bigger GOP priorities, including repeal of Obamacare and an overhaul of corporate taxes, appear stalled. 

As Noam Levey wrote, the administration took some steps this week to stabilize the Obamacare marketplaces, in the process making them less friendly to consumers. That hasn’t been enough to keep all insurers on board, however — at least one major company has already announced it’s pulling out.

All that comes as the latest numbers point to considerable success for Obama’s healthcare law: Fewer Americans are going uninsured than at any point in history.

DYSFUNCTION DOESN’T EQUAL DISASTER

Even with all its problems, the administration is still  getting the basics in place. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin won confirmation this week. So did Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. And Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt is also expected to prevail, likely this afternoon. 

Longer term, the question will be what course corrections Trump is willing to make. As Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett reported, even before the Flynn firing, Trump was hearing calls to change his approach and reshape a White House that leading Republicans call “dysfunctional.”

One problem for the White House, as Mike Memoli identified: Trump resists taking responsibility for his administration’s problems.

By Thursday, the situation was bad enough that Trump decided to take matters into his own hands and return to the free-swinging style of his campaign in a full-dress news conference.

Unlike the carefully controlled, short availabilities he held in the last few weeks, in which he took questions almost entirely from outlets the administration considers friendly, this time Trump mixed things up. The result was sometimes raucous, always interesting. Here’s a transcript.

As Cathy Decker wrote, Trump used the news conference as a way to break out of the White House bubble and communicate directly with supporters. He’s scheduled to do more of that Saturday at a rally (paid for by his campaign committee) in Melbourne, Fla.

DEPORTATIONS WITHOUT TRUMP’S FINGERPRINTS

Trump offered up some news at the news conference, mostly on immigration.

He revealed that his administration will release a new executive order on travel next week. It’s expected to be considerably more narrow than the current travel ban, “tailored,” as Trump put it, to the court decisions he dislikes. In a court filing, administration officials said the original executive order, which was placed on hold by a federal court, would be repealed when the new one is issued.

Trump also talked about his dilemma on what to do about so-called Dreamers — people who came to the U.S. illegally as children. In his campaign, he pledged to repeal the Obama administration program, known as DACA, which shields them from deportation. So far, Trump has not acted on the issue. 

“DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” he said, expressing sympathy for the Dreamers.

But, as Brian Bennett reported in an exclusive story, Trump’s aides have found ways he could eliminate DACA’s protections without his fingerprints being on the action. 

Already, raids are spreading fear in many immigrant communities. Federal officials insist they have not broadened the scope of immigration enforcement, but the anxiety serves its own purpose for immigration hard-liners, making the U.S. seem like a less desirable destination for others who might be contemplating illegal entry.

Not everyone opposes a crackdown, of course. For many Trump supporters, it’s a key issue.

And the private-prison industry stands to gain a lot, Jennie Jarvie reported. In some poor U.S. counties, that’s seen as a boon for jobs.

CLARIFYING A NEW FOREIGN POLICY — OR NOT

The shape and tone of the Trump administration’s foreign policy continues to be hotly fought over, both within the administration and in Congress.

As Bill Hennigan and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, even as Trump talked about his desire to work out a deal with Russia, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all made public statements appearing cold to the idea

The administration also sent mixed signals on the Middle East. After a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump sidestepped the longstanding U.S. policy of supporting a “two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians. He would support one state or two, whichever the parties preferred, he said.

The next day, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said in New York, "we absolutely support a two-state solution."

"That's never wavered," Haley added.

TWO OTHER STORIES OF NOTE

On Sunday, a top aide to Trump, Stephen Miller, tried to revive the president’s false accusation of widespread illegal voting, insisting in a television interview that Massachusetts residents had been bused into New Hampshire to vote illegally there. Senior New Hampshire Republicans called his charge false and “shameful.”

Lots of powerful companies don’t want Trump to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement on combatting global warming, Evan Halper reported.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look. 

And here’s a compilation of major events in Week 4 of the Trump presidency. 

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Sarah Wire will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter

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