Warring with the special counsel, Trump digs himself deeper

Tweet by tweet, President Trump has stoked his anger at special counsel Robert Mueller III, complaining of leaks, denouncing a “witch hunt,” saying he is being treated unfairly.

From Capitol Hill to downtown D.C.’s law firms, Republican strategists have warned against firing Mueller. “Catastrophic,” said one senior Republican senator, when asked about the effect of a firing.

Yet so unpredictable and impetuous has Trump proved himself that few express confidence that he will heed the advice.

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.

AT WAR WITH THE SPECIAL COUNSEL

As with so many of Trump’s problems, his current predicament is largely self-made.

Before Trump fired James B. Comey from his job as FBI director, the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election seemed to be focusing away from the president.

Prosecutors clearly had former national security advisor Michael Flynn in their sights. They reportedly had sought records from Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Closer to home for Trump, the FBI was asking questions about meetings that his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, had with Russian officials.

But as Comey, himself, told the president, he was not personally under investigation.

That no longer appears to be true.

Trump’s firing of Comey brought on Mueller’s appointment, which took the investigation firmly out of the control of Trump’s appointees. Once Mueller took the reins, he inevitably started looking at whether the firing, plus Trump’s reported requests that senior intelligence officials intervene to try to halt the investigation of Flynn, amounted to an abuse of power or an effort to obstruct the investigation.

As that realization sank in at the White House and as officials began to lawyer up — Vice President Mike Pence is the latest to obtain counsel — Trump began contemplating firing Mueller.

It’s a step that may go beyond his legal authority and probably exceeds his current political strength, but that hasn’t stopped him from considering it.

On Monday, Christopher Ruddy, the head of the conservative website Newsmax and a sometime confidant of Trump’s, visited the White House, then went on PBS’s “NewsHour” to say that Trump was thinking about firing Mueller.

"I personally think it would be a very significant mistake," Ruddy said.

White House aides scrambled to say that Ruddy wasn’t speaking for the president, and the storm calmed, briefly. On Tuesday, the prospect that the president might move against the special counsel hovered over two Senate hearings that featured Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein.

Then, on Wednesday, hours after the shooting of a Republican member of Congress at a congressional baseball practice, the storm blew back in, as strong as ever.

That evening, news broke that Mueller was taking the unsurprising step of planning to question those senior intelligence officials whose help Trump had sought, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency. Trump fired back in his now-familiar way, as Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman reported.

“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people!” Trump declared on Twitter.

Thursday morning’s tweets were followed by more on Friday.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” Trump declared, making an apparent reference to Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s investigation. His statement, perhaps inadvertently, seemed to confirm that Mueller is investigating possible obstruction of justice.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Friday morning that she was “growing increasingly concerned” that Trump would try to fire both Mueller and Rosenstein. Trump, she said, was sending a message that “he believes the rule of law doesn’t apply to him.” That’s a “blatant violation of the president’s oath of office,” she added.

Trump turned 71 on Wednesday, and his penchant for personalizing issues, painting his opponents as evil and seeking short-term victories even at the expense of his long-term interests are, by now, deeply ingrained.

Over the last year, Republican leaders repeatedly have hoped that someone would emerge who could control that side of Trump. A year ago, they pinned those hopes on Manafort. After he was fired, some thought Kellyanne Conway would control Trump. Others looked to Reince Priebus.

After the inauguration, Ivanka Trump and Kushner were supposedly set to play that role. More recently, some on Capitol Hill have hoped that First Lady Melania Trump’s move to Washington would calm the president.

Slowly, the realization has set in that outside control of Trump is simply not possible. As long as he feels under threat — and perhaps as long as his tenure in office lasts — he will remain one impetuous tweet away from crisis.

“He’s described himself as a counterpuncher. That muscle memory, that he has that reflex to react when something like this comes up, obviously it’s very strong,” Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based consultant for three Republican presidential campaigns, told Bennett and Bierman.

“Its safe to say that oftentimes the president can be his own worst enemy.”

A TURN IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Public hearings on a high-profile Washington scandal can make — or mar — the reputations of members of Congress. As Cathleen Decker wrote, a whole generation of younger senators have been using the latest round as a potential launching pad.

California Sen. Kamala Harris has benefited greatly by the way older, male senators keep interrupting her as she asks questions of witnesses. The incidents, with both gender and racial power dynamics at play, have helped solidify Harris’ appeal to many Democratic activists.

FEARING FOR THEIR SAFETY

Wednesday’s shooting, which left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Matt Mika, a former congressional staff member, in critical condition, highlighted the threats that members of Congress face.

In today’s era of heightened partisan enmity, and in a country where firearms are easily bought, lawmakers of both parties fear for their safety, Lisa Mascaro wrote.

Those fears reached new heights this week, leading to demands for greater security.

The shooting was a scene of chaos and heroism, as Bierman described. It also quickly became a symbol of the way partisan animosity has grown steadily in the last two decades, Mark Barabak writes.

Obviously, most Americans harbor nothing close to the venom that appears to have motivated the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson. He was, as even his lawyer said, an “irascible” man with a seemingly boundless anger toward Republicans.

But even among normal voters, negative perceptions about the other party and its adherents have grown intense. The two sides eye each other across a vast gulf, separated along lines of race, class, education and feelings about national identity. That’s a prime reason why Americans should not expect the shooting to change the national debate on gun control, as Barabak writes.

Trump called for unity in a message played at the start of the Congressional Baseball Game, which began with a prayer for Scalise and which Democrats won 11-2.

THE NEXT BIG TEST

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Capitol Hill featured lots of calls for unity. On the ground, however, the two parties are waging the most expensive congressional campaign ever — the special election to fill the seat from the Atlanta suburbs left vacant when Tom Price became secretary of Health and Human Services.

For months, the two parties have been pouring resources into the district, seeing the battle between Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, and Karen Handel, Georgia’s Republican former secretary of state, as an important indicator of Trump’s support.

The district is a longtime Republican seat, but Trump nearly lost it to Hillary Clinton in November. In an open primary earlier this spring, Ossoff, running against several Republicans, fell just short of the 50% that would have avoided a runoff. Since then Handel has consolidated the Republican vote, and the outcome is likely to be very close.

Early voting has been extremely high. The final votes will be cast and tallied on Tuesday. As Evan Halper wrote, a key issue will be whether Democrats can succeed in getting African American voters to turn out. Lukewarm turnout among black voters was one factor that contributed to Clinton’s defeat in November.

TIGHTENING UP ON CUBA

Trump is scheduled to visit Miami on Friday to announce new restrictions on investment in and travel to Cuba.

But just as significant are the elements of President Obama’s opening to Cuba that Trump will leave in place. The reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana will remain. U.S. airlines will still be able to fly to the island. Cruise ships can dock there. And Cuban residents of the U.S. will still be able to send home remittances as before.

So while anti-Castro Cuban political figures in Florida, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, will be able to claim a victory of sorts, Trump’s decision can also be read as a bipartisan affirmation of Obama’s move to drop the half-century-old U.S. effort to isolate Cuba.

Meantime, the Senate moved toward limiting Trump’s foreign policy authority. By 98-2, senators voted to strengthen U.S. sanctions against Russia and limit the president’s authority to remove them.

The two dissenters on the bill, which also toughened sanctions against Iran, represent the Senate’s ideological extremes — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian Republican, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent democratic socialist.

TRAVEL BAN TAKES ANOTHER HIT IN COURT

Trump’s proposed temporary ban on travel to the U.S. by nationals of six mostly Muslim countries has been blocked repeatedly in court. The latest decision, from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday, was notable for two reasons.

First, the judges avoided broad constitutional rulings and, instead, said that Trump’s order failed to follow the requirements of federal immigration law. That means that the Supreme Court will have two sets of questions it will have to consider — the statutory issues raised by the 9th Circuit and constitutional issues posed earlier this spring by the 4th Circuit — if the justices decide to consider the case.

The 9th Circuit also said that while it would keep most of the travel order on hold, it would allow the administration to proceed with developing new, more stringent vetting procedures for people seeking to enter the U.S. That could remove some of the urgency for the Supreme Court to decide whether to hear the case on an emergency basis.

The high court is likely to decide next week whether to hear the government’s appeal.

BACKING AWAY FROM AN ENVIRONMENTAL FIGHT

Early this year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt shocked California officials and environmental activists by telling Congress that his agency might consider overturning the state’s long-standing authority to set its own emissions standards for cars and trucks.

Thursday, Pruitt appeared to make an about-face, telling a House committee that there were no plans to review California’s authority. The Environmental Protection Agency chief even praised the state’s “leadership” on clear air issues.

As Evan Halper and Chris Megerian wrote, the announcement came as rare good news for environmental activists. California’s authority over emissions standards is a key tool for combating global warming, especially with the administration reversing federal efforts to stabilize the climate.

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.

LOGISTICS

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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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter

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