Back from Singapore, Trump eagerly plunges into the fray, bashing Comey and the Russia investigation
On his return from Singapore, President Trump lamented on Twitter that his “thought process must sadly go back to the Witch Hunt.”
His eagerness to jump back into the fray belied the “sadly.”
Even before he left Washington for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump was looking ahead to the scheduled release of a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, who was expected to sharply criticize the president’s nemesis, former FBI Director James B. Comey.
The report, issued the day Trump turned 72, would be a good birthday present, the president said.
THE NEVER-ENDING 2016 CAMPAIGN
One central fact about the report issued by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz: It has only a tangential relationship to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian efforts to shape the 2016 election and possible collusion by people close to Trump.
The main focus of the 500-page report, as Evan Halper wrote, was on the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of email while she was secretary of State.
Comey mishandled the case by flouting Justice Department rules and publicly talking about the FBI’s conclusions, according to Horowitz — a nonpartisan figure who commands wide respect from both parties in Congress. Comey’s actions did not display political bias but were improper, Horowitz’s report concluded. He also found that Comey correctly determined that the FBI had no grounds to recommend criminal charges against Clinton in the email probe.
The report also went into great detail on a “culture of leaking” of investigative details from the FBI to reporters — something that clearly played to Clinton’s detriment in 2016.
In Clinton’s eyes — and in the opinion of many outside analysts — Comey’s announcement in October 2016 that the FBI had reopened its email probe after finding some of her emails on a laptop belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner could well have been the deciding factor that cost her the election. The inspector general’s criticisms of the FBI investigation would have rocked the campaign had the election not already been held more than 19 months ago.
The historical nature of the inquiry -- and its strong implication that the FBI had been unfair to Clinton, not him — didn’t slow Trump, of course. To him, Comey represents the enemy, the Deep State that he and his supporters see as conspiring against him. Anything that reflects badly on Comey serves the president both politically (keeping his supporters revved up) and, it seems, psychologically.
The report “totally exonerates” him, Trump falsely declared Friday.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, went further, as is increasingly his habit. Even though the report does not mention Mueller at all, and involves only matters that took place months before Mueller’s appointment, Giuliani took to Sean Hannity’s Fox television show Thursday night to say that Mueller should be “suspended.”
Even more extraordinarily for a former U.S. attorney, Giuliani declared that an FBI agent cited in the report for sending text messages critical of candidate Trump “should be in jail by the end of next week.”
The FBI agent, Peter Strzok, and a second former agent, Lisa Page, provide the key connection for Trump and his backers that allows them to link the Clinton email investigation to the Mueller probe.
Strzok played an important role in the email investigation and the early stages of the FBI’s Russia investigation in 2016. The personal messages he exchanged with Page — the two were having an affair — which show disdain for Trump, taint the entire investigation and everything it produced, Trump’s backers claim.
Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation last summer, after he learned of the messages and before they became public.
Friday morning, the Russia investigation got a new jolt when a federal judge ordered Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort jailed on allegations of witness tampering. Trump, shortly before the court hearing, continued his effort to distance himself from Manafort, saying that he “worked for me for a very short period of time.”
NORTH KOREA ‘NO LONGER A NUCLEAR THREAT’
It’s possible that future historians will look back and say that Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore this week represented a milestone along a road toward a peaceful, secure future for northeast Asia.
It’s at least equally possible that it will be viewed, like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s trip to Pyongyang in the closing months of the Bill Clinton presidency, as yet another trip leading nowhere in the unsuccessful U.S. effort to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump’s not one to wait on the verdict of history.
“President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer - sleep well tonight!” he declared on Twitter. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
As Barbara Demick and Tracy Wilkinson wrote in their assessment of the summit, the talks hadn’t been expected to produce much and “actually produced less than many analysts expected.” The vaguely worded summit declaration — largely negotiated before Trump and Kim arrived in Singapore — deferred almost all the hard work to a future negotiating process.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately set off for Seoul and Beijing to try to get that process moving, as Wilkinson and Eli Stokols reported.
“We’re hopeful that we can achieve that in the next — what is it? — 2½ years, something like that,” Pompeo said. “There’s a lot of work left to do,” he acknowledged.
In addition to Demick, Wilkinson and Stokols, our colleagues in Singapore for the summit — Noah Bierman, Victoria Kim, Matt Stiles and Bob Drogin — produced a large body of excellent stories. Here’s a selection of some of the most insightful stories that remain of interest several days after the events have ended:
Demick wrote about Kim’s remarkable and brutal success at consolidating his hold on North Korea while also improving the country’s dismal economy. Kim is the “perfect dictator,” said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based scholar who has lived and worked inside North Korea.
Demick also explained why, seven decades after the fighting stopped, it’s still hard to formally end the Korean War.
Bierman wrote a first-person account of being one of the handful of reporters actually on-scene at the summit site.
Stokols wrote about how the summit highlighted the unique nature of “diplotainment” in the Trump era.
Kim wrote this about her experience as a reporter who grew up in South Korea, viewing North Korean Kim’s triumphal turn on the world stage.
David Cloud wrote about the nervous reaction at the Pentagon to Trump’s talk of ending joint military exercises with South Korea.
And lest anyone forget, Demick and Wilkinson wrote this about North Korea’s record of starving, shooting and imprisoning its own people.
Trump, as is now widely known, did not press that topic when he met with Kim and, indeed, went out of his way to downplay the North Korean government’s brutality.
Kim is a “tough guy” who took over a “tough country,” he told Fox News’ Bret Baier. “If you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 could do that,” he said, admiringly.
When Baier pressed him, noting that Kim had “done some really bad things,” Trump seemed to waive the concerns aside.
“Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done,” he said.
Friday, also on Fox, Trump expressed admiration for the way Kim’s underlings respond to him: “He speaks and his people stood up at attention,” Trump said. “I want my people to do the same.”
ESCALATING THE TRADE WAR
Remarks like that — even if Trump means them partly in jest — feed the president’s reputation for authoritarianism. So does the contrast between his warm praise for Kim (or other heads of state like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping) and his often-harsh criticism of America’s traditional allies.
The latest example came this week after Trump threw into chaos the G-7 economic summit in Quebec. As Jim Puzzanghera explained, Trump initially agreed to a joint communique to end the summit, as is traditionally done at such meetings. Then, after leaving early, he withdrew from the communique in an apparent fit of pique at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau had the temerity to say, as he has several times, that Canada would not go along with some U.S. demands for changes in the NAFTA trade treaty with the U.S. and Mexico.
The next day, two of Trump’s top economic advisors — taking their cues from the president — used unusually harsh rhetoric to denounce the Canadian leader, calling his words a “stab in the back.”
“There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door,” White House trade advisor Peter Navarro said, on Fox, of course.
Trump’s conviction that other countries are cheating the U.S. on trade formed a central part of his campaign. Mainstream economic advisors diverted the president for most of his first year in office, but this year, he has steadily ratcheted up trade tensions.
On Friday, the administration took its latest step, detailing $50 billion in Chinese imports that will be subjected to hefty tariffs.
As Puzzanghera and Don Lee wrote, less than a month ago, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the administration was “putting the trade war on hold.” Now, it’s back on.
IT’S TRUMP’S PARTY
Trump’s savaging of the allies, levying of tariffs, downplaying of North Korean oppression and ending of military exercises with South Korea all broke with longstanding Republican positions.
Each outburst brought a few, scattered criticisms from the usual voices — Sen. John McCain and his fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and a few others.
The vast majority of Republicans remained silent.
Republican voters stand firmly in Trump’s corner — much more so this spring than they did last fall — and they’re ready to punish any sign of disloyalty. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina discovered that Tuesday when he lost his primary, largely because of his willingness to criticize Trump.
As Mark Barabak wrote, the lesson was clear to all GOP elected officials:
“If you’re a Republican member of Congress who wants to speak out against Trump, you have a couple of choices,” David Wasserman, who handicaps House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told Barabak. “Retire or lose your next primary.”
A second lesson also came Tuesday when House GOP leaders successfully squelched an effort by moderate Republicans to force a vote on immigration legislation.
As Sarah Wire wrote, the moderates, led by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) had pushed for a vote on protecting the so-called Dreamers — young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Instead, the House leadership will bring to the floor two immigration bills — a hard-line measure that even its backers say can’t pass the House, and a more moderate effort that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has billed as a compromise.
Friday, Trump seemed to kill off that effort, as well. “I certainly wouldn’t sign the more moderate one,” he said.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni is off for a few days. The California politics editions of Essential Politics will return on June 25. I’ll be back next Friday. 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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