With most of official Washington on vacation from the swampy, August heat, the reality television side of the Trump White House dominated the news this week, with headlines about secret recordings, enemies lists and whether or not the president had used a particular racial slur.
Omarosa Manigault Newman, who achieved fame of a sort on President Trump’s reality show, the “Apprentice,” served as the catalyst for the week. As usual, however, Trump found a way to reclaim the spotlight, announcing that he had revoked the security clearance of a prominent critic, former CIA director John Brennan, and threatening to do the same to others.
In a now familiar background chorus, cable television analysts debated whether these latest incidents would shake the faith of Trump’s core supporters (almost certainly they won’t). Meantime, with another round of primary elections out of the way, those who track congressional races moved a few more Republican-held congressional seats into the endangered category. With election day just over 11 weeks away, the non-partisan Cook Political Report now rates 37 GOP-held House seats, and only 3 Democratic seats, as toss-ups or worse, with 26 other GOP seats considered vulnerable. Democrats need to pick up 23 for a House majority.
APPRENTICE NO LONGER
The only surprise as Omarosa Manigault Newman began her book tour was that the White House seemed so unprepared to deal with it.
From the day that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly fired her, a gossipy book with allegations of racism had been so widely predicted as to seem inevitable. No one at the White House seemed to know what — if anything — Manigault Newman did at work, but they did know two things about her: She was known by her first name, and she played a character whose role was to attack and betray.
But being unprepared for the inevitable has become one of the administration’s hallmarks. As Manigault Newman spooled out recordings, including audio of a $180,000 campaign job offer that she described as a hush-money deal, and hinted that she has many more, the official responses seemed even more than usually slapdash.
Trump denounced her as a “low life” and a “dog,” attracting more attention to her claims and raising questions about why he had hired her if he felt that way. White House officials engaged in their usual practice of telling reporters, anonymously of course, that they had urged the president not to engage, but that he had ignored their advice. Trump’s lawyers threatened to try to block publication of the book, “Unhinged” — a tactic that helped make a bestseller out of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took a pass on Manigault Newman’s most inflammatory allegation — that recordings exist on which Trump can be heard using a racial epithet.
"I've never heard him use that term or anything similar,” Sanders said. But, she soon added, "I can't guarantee anything.”
Sanders then went on to make a false claim that under Trump the U.S. had produced more jobs for African Americans than under President Obama. That statement was so obviously false that Sanders issued a retraction, a rare event the White House blamed on confusing information from the president’s economic advisors.
That all this played out around the anniversary of the white supremacist march through Charlottesville, Va. — and Trump’s now notorious remark that the marchers included some “very fine people” — only heightened the sense of an administration stuck in an endless feedback loop. On Sunday, a band of fewer than 50 white supremacists gathered briefly at the park across the street from the White House, vastly outnumbered by thousands of counter-protesters, as Laura King reported.
ANOTHER REALITY STAR
Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, has made himself ubiquitous on cable over the last several months. This week, he took his quest for exposure one step further, saying that he was exploring a run for president and visiting Iowa, as Michael Finnegan reported. He has a trip to New Hampshire scheduled, as well.
THE ENEMIES’ LIST
Trump almost always responds one way when someone else dominates the headlines: He does something to swing attention back to him.
On Wednesday, the White House revealed that Trump had revoked the security clearance for former CIA Director John Brennan and that he had nine more prominent critics under review, as Eli Stokols wrote.
As a practical matter, the revocation doesn’t mean much. Administrations have typically maintained security clearances for top officials from former administrations partly as a courtesy and partly so that they can consult their predecessors about current issues. Given Brennan’s strident criticisms of Trump, consultation seems unlikely, security clearance or no.
As a symbol, however, the act came with ominous overtones. Along with Trump’s repeated denunciations of the press, his calls for the Justice Department to investigate political opponents and the administration’s firings of perceived enemies, it heightened his image as a would-be authoritarian.
As Stokols wrote, Trump’s action drew criticism from Democrats, but also rebukes from former top intelligence and national security officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations.
THE VERDICT ON MANAFORT
Both sides said Trump was not relevant to the trial of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. The crimes on which he was charged involved alleged financial fraud that prosecutors said he indulged in to finance his expensive life style after his income began to decline.
Trump clearly felt otherwise. He tweeted about the case, expressing sympathy with Manafort, and clearly appeared to be paying more than just a bystander’s attention to the trial.
"I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad," Trump said Friday. "He happens to be a very good person, and I think it's very sad what they've done to Paul Manafort."
Here’s Chris Megarian’s summary of the prosecution case. The defense argued that any illegal acts were the fault of Manafort’s former deputy, Richard Gates, now the lead prosecution witness.
The case went to the jury late Wednesday, and a verdict could come at any point.
IGNORING THE SCIENTISTS
The administration’s plan to roll back fuel-economy rules was based in part on the claim that the standards adopted by President Obama would lead to a larger number of highway deaths. Safety and fuel economy are in “tension,” administration officials claimed.
New documents released this week made clear that the administration ignored its own EPA scientists in coming up with that claim, as Evan Halper wrote.
The documents seem likely to strengthen the court case that California and other states have brought to try to block the administration’s action.
CONFUSING THE ALLIES
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials insist that the administration speaks with one voice on matters of foreign policy. But as Tracy Wilkinson wrote, the evidence of a policy disconnect between Trump and his administration is overwhelming.
It’s also confusing to U.S. allies and adversaries alike.
Most recently, the administration announced new sanctions against Russia for its alleged involvement in the attempted assassination last spring of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England, an attack that used an illegal nerve agent. The sanctions came just a couple of weeks after Trump met in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, called for better relations with Moscow and notably declined to criticize Russia’s actions.
Similar contradictions have roiled U.S. trade policy.
As Don Lee reported, the administration appears near to a deal with Mexico on revising NAFTA, but issues with Canada remain. Because Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, takes office on Dec. 1, and NAFTA has a built-in 90-day waiting period before any new deal can be signed, negotiations would have to conclude by the beginning of September to allow the current Mexican president to sign the agreement.
Meantime, the U.S. and China have agreed to resume low-level trade talks amid the escalating tariff battle between the two countries.
And in soybean country in Nebraska, Lee found that the trade war with China is testing patience and nerves. Farmers are sticking with Trump, but they worry the economic pain is only starting in the Farm Belt.
AN APPEALING TARGET
Trump and Senate Republicans have had remarkable success in getting young, conservative judges appointed to the federal appeals courts.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, they’ve made almost no headway with the one appeals court that has long been at the top of the conservative target list — the 9th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over California and eight other Western states.
As Sarah Wire reported, that may be about to change as Trump finally seem to be turning his sights to shifting the 9th Circuit to the right.
Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.