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The walls are closing in, but Trump still has formidable defenses

The walls are closing in, but Trump still has formidable defenses
  (Los Angeles Times)

On multiple fronts, the walls closed in this week on President Trump.

In court in New York, prosecutors moved several steps closer to potential charges against him in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case.

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On Capitol Hill, Trump’s signature pledge of a wall along the border with Mexico neared collapse.

And at the White House, the president, having finally dispatched his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, discovered how few people now want the once-coveted job.

But if the White House increasingly resembles a castle under siege, it’s well to remember that its walls are thick and defenses strong. This saga could have many chapters yet to come.

THE MONEY SAID HUSH, BUT THEY DIDN’T

Trump has cycled through at least three false stories about his payments of $280,000 to two women in the fall of 2016 to keep them quiet about allegedly having had sex with him.

When the Wall Street Journal first disclosed the payments, Trump, through his spokeswoman Hope Hicks, insisted he knew nothing about it.

When that was shown to be a lie, Trump said his lawyer, Michael Cohen, had represented him in dealing with Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, and Stephanie Clifford, a porn actress who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, but that he hadn’t known the details.

When that falsehood was exposed, he said the payments had “nothing to do with the campaign.”

Wednesday, as Chris Megerian wrote, prosecutors in New York presented strong evidence to rebut that, as well.

As federal Judge William H. Pauley III sentenced Cohen to three years in prison for several crimes, including his role in arranging the payments to the two women, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan revealed that the third party in the hush-money case, the publisher of the National Enquirer, had also reached an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors.

In the deal, known as a nonprosecution agreement, American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer tabloid, admitted that the payment had been made in connection with “a candidate’s 2016 presidential campaign” and to “influence that election.”

That’s a key element in any campaign-finance prosecution. In the last big political hush-money case, John Edwards won acquittal largely by arguing that he paid off a mistress to keep the affair secret from his wife, which isn’t illegal.

The testimony by Cohen and American Media that the payments were aimed at the election would undercut any such defense from Trump.

Prosecutors also have testimony that Trump personally took part in meetings with Cohen and American Media’s chief, David Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump’s, to discuss the payments.

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Trump has a remaining defense, however, which is a strong one, as Megerian wrote: In campaign finance, ignorance of the law is an excuse. In order to go after Trump, prosecutors would have to show that he knew that the campaign law barred what he was telling Cohen and Pecker to do. This time, Trump’s profound ignorance may help him.

Meanwhile, the investigation of Russian interference in U.S. politics claimed another guilty plea. On Thursday, Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian graduate student, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

As Megerian and Evan Halper wrote, hers is a curious case that has left some observers wondering: Was she a Russian spy or a naive student?

THE WALL TUMBLING

Next Friday, Congress hits its latest deadline for passing bills to keep government agencies running. So far, only five of the 12 appropriations bills have been passed and signed into law. That means large swaths of the federal government would close down — and hundreds of thousands of government workers would go without pay — just before Christmas unless Congress acts, likely with another stop-gap package.

The big stumbling block, as Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, is money for Trump’s long-promised border wall.

Congress has a tentative deal to spend $1.6 billion to upgrade existing border fences. Trump wants $25 billion to start building a wall, but has signaled that he’d accept $5 billion.

In a televised confrontation on Tuesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her Senate counterpart Charles E. Schumer made clear that Trump wouldn’t get what he wanted. Trump said he would be “proud” to shut down the government in response.

“I will take the mantle of shutting it down,” he said.

Republican leaders don’t think Trump will follow through on that threat by vetoing a spending bill, but no one knows for sure.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said that a government shutdown would hurt his party, and on the House side, Republicans who lost their reelection in November aren’t keen on sticking around Washington for Christmas to handle a self-inflicted crisis.

A year ago, Democrats were ready to give Trump $25 billion in exchange for a compromise on immigration policy. Now, having regained the majority of the House in the November election, they’re no longer interested. Trump’s chances of getting big money for his wall appear very small.

HOME ALONE

Last week, Trump announced that Kelly would leave as chief of staff around the end of the year. Now, that looks premature.

Trump failed a basic test — making sure he had a replacement lined up, as Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols reported. He thought that Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, would take the job, but Ayers said no. Finding someone who would say yes has proven difficult.

The problem, as Bierman and Stokols wrote, is that Trump has devalued the job and made it a source of humiliation both for Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus.

Now, White House officials say, Kelly may stay on for several more weeks.

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Trump, increasingly isolated, has also seemed more disengaged than usual, Stokols and Megerian reported. On Friday, for the third day in a row, he didn’t show up in the Oval Office until almost noon.

PELOSI SELLS A BRIDGE

Perhaps her public dressing-down of Trump helped with Democratic lawmakers, or perhaps the outcome was foreordained, but Pelosi appears to have locked down the final votes she needed to regain the speakership next month, as Haberkorn wrote.

She did so in classic style, packaging as a “concession” something that actually works in her favor.

Before the election, Pelosi said in an interview with Mark Barabak that “I see myself as a transitional figure.”

At the time, that was widely interpreted as a suggestion that if the Democrats regained the majority, this next term would be her last as speaker. But, Pelosi said, she didn’t want to “make myself a lame duck” by stating a specific limit to her tenure.

Roll the tape forward a few weeks: Democrats under Pelosi’s leadership have won an unexpectedly large majority in the House. A group of dissidents, however, continues to oppose her election as speaker. One by one, Pelosi picks off the opponents, leaving her with just a few more votes to win over.

On Wednesday, she makes the final deal, agreeing to a term limit.

The agreement, however, wasn’t that she’d serve less than a full term and have someone else in the speaker’s chair before the next election. It wasn’t even that this term would be her last.

Instead, Pelosi and the dissidents agreed that she would serve the coming two-year term as speaker and then potentially two additional years. Then she would leave. Of course, as any good negotiator would do, Pelosi was happy to let the dissidents claim that as a concession on her part.

“I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders,” she said with a smile.

CONSERVATIVES FOLD ON FOOD STAMPS

November’s election has also already had an impact on legislation.

For months, Congress was stalled on passing a massive $867-billion farm bill. The measure, which re-ups a whole series of agriculture and forestry programs, had stalled over conservatives’ insistence on adding work requirements to the food stamp program, known as SNAP.

Both sides had put off a settlement until they could see how the election turned out. Now, with that question answered, Congress has approved the bill, minus the work requirements and other provisions Trump had wanted, including one that would have allowed the cutting of more trees in national forests, Sarah Wire reported.

A #METOO VICTORY IN CONGRESS

As members of Congress tried to wrap up their work and get home for the holidays, they broke another long-standing deadlock this week, approving a bill that will change how they handle sexual harassment cases.

As Wire and Haberkorn reported, under the new law, members will have to pay out of their own pockets if they settle a case, rather than using taxpayer funds. The measure will only cover harassment cases, not a broader universe of sex discrimination claims. The House is expected to address that issue, at least for its own members, in the new year.

LIBERALS WIN A ROUND AT SUPREME COURT

Ever since the confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, liberals have braced for defeats on abortion-related issues.

So it was notable that when the first test on that subject came to the court, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court’s four liberals to reject an appeal that aimed to cut off money to Planned Parenthood.

As David Savage wrote, the decision not to consider the case doesn’t necessarily mean that Kavanaugh has moderated his views. The move by him and Roberts could be simply tactical. Still, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by two other conservatives, wrote a bluntly worded dissent.

REST OF THE WEEK’S NEWS

—The administration released its latest rollback of a major environmental rule this week. This one could strip protections from up to two-thirds of California streams and millions of acres nationwide, Halper reported.

—As Halper wrote, administration officials challenge those estimates, which were based on the EPA’s own data.

—The shadow campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is well underway, Halper wrote, and several potential candidates used the midterm election to their advantage.

—In a rebuke of Trump, the Senate voted to cut off U.S. help for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. As Wire and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, the Senate also unanimously condemned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The moves are symbolic for now, in part because the House won’t act, but they presage further trouble for the Saudis and their allies in the Trump administration once the new Democratic majority takes control.

—The administration unveiled a new policy toward Africa in a speech by national security advisor John Bolton. As Wilkinson reported, Bolton focused on attacking what he called “predatory” practices by China and Russia.

—Trump says he wants a government-run media outlet. As Bierman wrote, he’s largely ignored the one he has. But over at Voice of America, people are increasingly nervous.

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—Finally, as they contemplate their election losses, Republicans in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere are seeking to undermine the election results by changing the rules, Mark Barabak reported. The steps they’re taking are likely to increase public cynicism, he wrote.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, 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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