President Trump likes to boast about accomplishing more, faster than any previous president. Mostly, that boast is false, but this week, he achieved a legitimate, albeit undesirable, record — the fastest appointment of a special counsel to investigate an administration.
Trump’s 17 weeks in office have had more downs than ups, but this one marked a qualitative change.
The investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election has now passed almost fully outside of Trump’s control. Denunciations of a “witch hunt” may serve to rally his backers, but only to a point. Meantime, the subpoenas have already started.
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.
MUELLER STEPS IN, TRUMP LASHES OUT
The decision by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller III as special counsel to run the Russia investigation caught the White House by surprise, as Joe Tanfani, Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett reported.
Initially, the White House issued a carefully worded, tepid statement. But it didn’t take long — only overnight — for Trump’s fury to emerge in its usual form, messages on Twitter.
Trump sounded two notes that he has repeatedly hit — that the investigation is illegitimate at a basic level and that he’s being unfairly persecuted: “The single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” he declared.
Even more than most of Trump’s political wounds, however, this one was self-inflicted. Last week, when Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, he made it all but inevitable that Rosenstein, sooner or later, would appoint a special counsel, as I wrote at the time.
Rosenstein opted for sooner, probably spurred on by one of the most damaging revelations of Trump’s presidency — the news that the president had asked Comey, in an Oval Office meeting, to drop the investigation of his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to a memo that Comey wrote just after the meeting. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Rosenstein went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to brief all 100 senators about the investigation. He didn’t tell them much, but confirmed that Trump made clear his intention to fire Comey even before Rosenstein wrote a memo critical of the FBI director’s conduct.
Where the investigation goes, we can’t know yet. When Robert Fiske was named early in 1994 as an independent counsel to probe Bill and Hillary Clinton’s investment in the failed Whitewater real estate development, no one would have predicted that more than four years later, his successor, Kenneth W. Starr, would end up accusing the president of lying under oath about an affair with a White House intern that took place years after the investigation started.
There’s still a strong possibility that when all the testimony is taken and all the leads are followed up, Mueller may say that no conclusive evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign has turned up — although it’s quite possible that he could indict people for other crimes his investigators discover along the way.
We do have some sense of where the probes are starting. Flynn’s legal jeopardy appears to be mounting rapidly. Investigators also reportedly have taken an interest in Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Both men have asserted their innocence.
The political impact, at least in the short term, is clearer.
For Republican members of Congress, Mueller’s appointment is mostly a plus. As Lisa Mascaro wrote, Republicans in Congress have, with few exceptions, stood by Trump. He remains popular with Republican voters, especially the conservatives who dominate the party’s primaries.
Moreover, Republicans face the dilemma that if they publicly criticize Trump, they open themselves to the logical question of what they’re prepared to do about it.
Mueller gets them off the hook, at least for now. From here on, expect to hear a lot of GOP officials answer almost any question about Trump and Russia with a regretful shrug and a reference to not wanting to say anything that might interfere with the special counsel’s investigation.
The same holds true for Democrats. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, have been trying to curb the enthusiasm of rank-and-file Democrats who have already begun openly talking about impeachment.
Both know that outside of liberal enclaves, the country isn’t looking for that kind of escalation of partisan warfare — not yet, anyway. Notably, in the two special elections coming up in the next few weeks — in Montana and Georgia — the Democratic candidates have not called for impeaching Trump, although they have criticized him.
Many Democrats believe Trump’s conduct already constitutes obstruction of justice. But as David Savage wrote, the case isn’t a simple one to make, and if the matter ever came to a head, Trump would have significant defenses.
The scene looks different from the White House.
Any quasi-independent prosecutor is a threat to any administration. White House aides to Clinton and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush can all testify to the disruption that special counsel investigations cause. Even low-level staff members begin hiring lawyers and watching what they say to colleagues while outsiders hesitate to come on board a beleaguered ship.
Those problems were already evident in Trump’s understaffed and factionalized White House. The investigation will surely worsen them.
Even before the spectacular events of the last week, Trump’s poll standing had been on the downswing — a trend that seems driven mostly by public distaste for the healthcare bill that passed the House late last month.
The share of Americans who approve of Trump’s job performance is back to the lowest point of his presidency, according to the various polling averages.
That may not matter much to Trump, who has focused on holding onto his core supporters and who doesn’t have to face voters until November 2020. But it’s a deep concern to GOP members of Congress from potential swing districts.
So far, the floor on his support has been around 40% of the public. That’s bad enough to handicap his party in House races. The next few weeks will test whether his support will drop further.
This particular special counsel also poses unique threats to Trump.
Mueller is a longtime colleague of Comey’s. He’s also a widely respected figure among Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill — a former Marine with a Bronze Star won in Vietnam, former federal prosecutor and a top Justice Department official in administrations of both parties. If anyone is immune to Trump’s type of political attacks, it would be him.
The main benefit to Trump would come if he, like members of Congress, could use the special counsel as an excuse to stop talking about the subject. So far, that’s a discipline he seems incapable of.
WANTED: FBI DIRECTOR
Who will replace Comey as head of the FBI? As of Thursday, Trump was leaning toward the 75-year-old former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. The two hit it off in a hastily scheduled meeting this week, aides said.
Trump indicated at a brief news conference on Thursday that he would like to make an announcement on the FBI before he leaves Friday on his overseas trip. Some of his aides are trying to slow down the rush toward an appointment, however, concerned that Lieberman, who has no federal law enforcement background and little management experience, would not be up to the job.
CARELESS WITH CLASSIFIED?
Trump took another hit earlier in the week when the Washington Post reported that he had disclosed highly classified information to two visiting Russian diplomats this month during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Intelligence experts disagreed about whether the breach did real damage to U.S. national security or whether it was a violation of the rules with few, if any, real-world consequences. It was the exact same debate that swirled around Hillary Clinton’s disputed email practices while she was secretary of State.
But as David Cloud reported, the way the incident came to light marked another escalation in the war between Trump and the nation’s intelligence agencies.
LETTING HEALTHCARE CRUMBLE
Some two dozen senior healthcare industry executives and state regulators from around the country spoke with Noam N. Levey about the administration’s approach toward healthcare.
They offered a picture of feckless management that has destabilized the healthcare marketplace, endangering coverage for millions of people and leading to higher insurance premiums.
“There is a sense that there are no hands on the wheel, and they are just letting the bus careen down the road,” said one official.
In one meeting, several executives told Levey, Seema Verma, a senior Health and Human Services official who oversees Medicare and Medicaid, appeared to try to lean on them to support the healthcare bill in the House. The administration would ensure payment of insurance subsidies the industry needs if they would get behind the bill, the executives heard her say.
Administration officials strongly deny that. Interestingly, however, the part they deny is not the idea that Verma might have tried to strong-arm the industry, but that she ever would have promised to pay the subsidies, which are deeply unpopular with conservative activists.
Meantime, a Senate version of the health bill is nowhere in sight. The next event will be the Congressional Budget Office’s official report on the budgetary impact of the House-passed bill. That report, known as a score, is due out early next week and could have huge effect.
GETTING OUT OF THE COUNTRY
The first stop on Trump’s nine-day tour is scheduled to be Saudi Arabia. Despite Trump’s talk about banning Muslim immigration, he’s expected to get a warm welcome, Mike Memoli and Molly Hennessey-Fiske write. The Saudis and the other Sunni monarchies of the region see Trump as an ally against the foe they worry about most — Iran.
Before he left D.C., Trump met with the visiting president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Santos is hoping to keep the administration’s support for continued financial aid to his country’s peace process. Some conservatives, both in Colombia and the U.S., oppose Santos’ peace plans, and Trump was noncommittal, but Colombia so far has strong support in Congress.
IMMIGRATION ARRESTS UP
The number of people arrested on civil immigration charges has jumped by more than a third since Trump took office, compared with last year’s figures. Some 40,000 immigrants have been detained, according to the latest data from the Department of Homeland Security.
As Nigel Duara reported, the increase is uneven across the country. In the Los Angeles area, the arrest figures have been about the same as last year. Arrests are sharply up in the southeastern U.S., by contrast.
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday took its first formal step toward undoing the Obama administration’s so-called net neutrality rules.
As Jim Puzzanghera reported, commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the goal was “to return to the light-touch regulatory framework” that he said had allowed the Internet to flourish. Consumer groups have loudly protested the move.
With iTrade Representative Robert Lighthizer in place, the administration issued a formal notice of its desire to negotiate changes in the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.
But as Don Lee reported, the goals of the NAFTA negotiations appear far more narrow than Trump’s campaign rhetoric. The talks could begin as early as mid-August. All three countries have changes they would like to make.
THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER ELECTION
Next week brings a special election in Montana to fill the congressional seat vacated by Ryan Zinke when he became secretary of Interior. If the Democrat wins, Republicans in Congress will become even more nervous about their prospects in 2018.
In those midterms elections, the Democrats’ road back to a majority runs through Southern California’s suburbs, where Republicans including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Darrell Issa may be vulnerable. Sarah Wire took this look at Democratic efforts to turn Orange County blue.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
As he showed again this week, 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.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni 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.
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