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Hurtling toward a showdown with the special counsel

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(LAT)

Donald Trump’s career before his election was shaped by a few massive, risky gambles — at least one of which, his plunge into buying casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., nearly ruined him. Now, as president, he seems headed for another.

In his interview Wednesday with the New York Times and in other comments relayed by people close to him, the president appears to be laying groundwork for firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election and possible cooperation by Trump aides.

The president may yet be dissuaded, but anyone who argues that Trump would not risk so much on a single move hasn’t learned from his history.

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.

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THE EIGHTH PERSON AND DONALD TRUMP JR.

The background for the president’s escalated attacks on the special counsel involves the disclosures over the past two weeks of the meeting last summer among Donald Trump Jr., a cast of Russian and Russian American businessmen and lobbyists and two other top Trump campaign officials, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, who at the time was the campaign manager.

At first, when the younger Trump released a chain of emails that led up to the meeting, he disclosed only the presence of one Russian, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer who has worked for wealthy allies of the country’s President Vladimir Putin.

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Trump Jr.’s willingness to meet with her at Trump Tower was enough to raise many questions, since his friend who set up the meeting, Rob Goldstone, had identified her as a Russian government attorney who had “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton]” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Then, we learned that in addition to Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and a translator, another Russian had attended, Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian American lobbyist who once served in a Soviet army counter-intelligence unit.

This week, we learned about the presence of an eighth person, Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze, a Russian American businessman, based in Orange County who works for Aras Agalarov, a billionaire Russian developer who has close Kremlin connections as well as long-standing ties with Trump.

Kaveladze’s lawyer told David Cloud and Joe Tanfani that Mueller’s investigators already had asked to talk with his client.

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In a situation of that sort, an investigator naturally would want to know as much as possible about financial ties among the people attending the meeting. In the case of the Trump family and the Agalarovs, there are many.

TRUMP DRAWS A LINE. WILL THE GOP?

In the interview, Trump seemed keenly aware of potential inquiries into his finances.

At one point, he appeared to be trying to lay down a defense in advance. “It’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?” he said. It’s worth noting that condo units in Trump’s buildings can sell for tens of millions of dollars.

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Shortly after, he appeared to draw a boundary around the inquiry.

Asked about an examination of his finances beyond Russian investments, he said, “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

Asked if he would fire Mueller if the inquiry went beyond that, Trump replied that “I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Trump’s concern about the scope of Mueller’s inquiry helps explain the interview’s other highlight, his angry denunciation of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ decision to step aside from overseeing the Russia probe.

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As Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett wrote, Trump’s lashing out at Sessions was the latest evidence that no person in the president’s circle is immune to his public attacks.

It was also a clear indication that he wanted Sessions to keep control of the investigation and was angry — and concerned — when he learned that would not happen. “It’s very unfair to the president,” he said.

Trump’s upset could grow more intense next week if Manafort and Trump Jr. agree to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to face questions.

The panel’s chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and its top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have said they will issue subpoenas to the pair if they don’t agree to appear voluntarily. A subpoena fight could delay the hearing, but only for a while.

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In theory, Trump could try to end the inquiries by firing Sessions, replacing him with a new attorney general who would not be recused from the Russia case and ordering that new appointee to fire Mueller.

In practice, winning Senate confirmation for a new head of the Justice Department might be difficult. And the congressional investigations of the case would still exist.

Trump’s words might come back to “haunt him,” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said on CNN. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine warned that firing Mueller would be “catastrophic.”

Most Republican lawmakers, however, have avoided taking a public stand on the prospect that Trump might try to short-circuit the Russia inquiry.

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Trump repeatedly has shown his willingness to take risks. The Republicans have shown little desire to take their own risks to check his impulses. The next few weeks may show which of those impulses is more powerful.

SPICER OUT AS TRUMP SHAKES UP STAFF

Replacing the White House press secretary doesn’t have quite the same heft as removing the attorney general, but Sean Spicer was unquestionably one of the best-known faces of the Trump administration. Now he’s gone.

Spicer’s departure was part of a larger shake-up in which Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier and longtime Trump supporter, became communications director and Trump’s New York-based lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, stepped away from representing Trump in the Russia case. John Dowd, a prominent Washington-based criminal defense lawyer will become Trump’s chief attorney in the case.

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And here’s a look back at his greatest hits.

TRUMP’S UNTRUTHS

The president said many eye-catching things in Wednesday’s interview — the not-so-veiled warnings to Mueller and Sessions being the most newsworthy.

Other statements, though, were notable for what they said about the limits of his knowledge or his willingness to say things that are easily proved untrue.

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Discussing his trip to Paris, he seemed to mix up Napoleon Bonaparte with Louis Napoleon, his nephew who ruled France 30 years later, or perhaps not to recognize that they were two different people. (“He designed Paris,” Trump said, talking about Louis Napoleon’s claim to fame. “His one problem is he didn’t go to Russia,” he added, referring to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated invasion.)

He repeated a comment about health insurance that he made in a previous interview that suggested that he confuses it with low-cost life insurance. (“You’re 21 years old, you start working, and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan,” he said, describing his understanding of how people currently get health insurance.)

And then there was his claim that Akie Abe, the wife of Japan’s prime minister, “doesn’t speak English … like, not ‘Hello.’”

Trump sat next to Akie Abe at a recent dinner of world leaders, and he used her lack of English as an explanation for why he left his seat to have a conversation with Putin.

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As Laura King wrote, Abe speaks English quite well, as many videos of her public remarks prove.

HEALTHCARE: CAN A ZOMBIE BILL DIE?

Senators left Washington on Thursday night with their leaders saying that they would vote on a healthcare bill next week. But no one seemed to know which bill, as Noam Levey reported.

“I don’t know whether we’re proceeding to the House bill, a new version of the Senate bill, the old version of the Senate bill, the 2015 repeal-and-hope-that-we-come-up-with something-in-two-years bill,” said Collins. “I truly don’t.”

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So far, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has repeatedly come up short in his efforts to put together a bill that 50 Republican senators would back.

The push has been hurt by repeated analyses from the Congressional Budget Office showing that the GOP bills would take health coverage away from at least 22 million people.

Polls show that a large majority of Americans would prefer that Republicans and Democrats work out a bipartisan agreement, Levey and Lisa Mascaro reported. But this week, Trump summoned the Senate Republicans to the White House for a lunch in which he pushed them to try again to pass a bill without Democratic support.

Sen. John McCain’s absence for at least the next few weeks makes McConnell’s job that much harder, and not just on healthcare, Mascaro wrote.

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But McConnell has not given up. The strategy has been to get senators to agree to begin debate and vote on amendments, in the hope that when all is done, the key, wavering lawmakers won’t be willing to cast a vote that would, in effect, keep the Affordable Care Act in place.

McConnell seems set to put that plan to a test with a Senate roll call next week.

A SENATE WITHOUT MCCAIN

McCain has many rare distinctions. As his fellow senators absorbed the news that he’s afflicted with a brain cancer — the same type that killed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy eight years ago — the most immediately relevant might be this: In a highly polarized era of politics, he’s one of the only political figures that both Democrats and Republicans view favorably.

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As Mark Barabak wrote, McCain has fought with fellow senators and others on a host of issues, but his extraordinary life story — and charismatic personality — have won admirers even among his antagonists.

A MAJOR ENVIRONMENTAL VICTORY FOR BROWN

Even as Trump continues to struggle to win passage of his legislative agenda, California Gov. Jerry Brown achieved a major victory on cap and trade, the state’s precedent-setting effort to drive reductions in emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

For the definitive explanation of what cap and trade does, read this by Chris Megerian and Joe Fox. And for the political divisions and consequences surrounding the vote, see this by Melanie Mason.

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The contrast between the action in Sacramento and the gridlock in Washington shows not just the power of having a big legislative majority, from which Brown certainly benefits, but also the advantage a chief executive gains from knowing how government works, Cathy Decker wrote.

Brown has cemented his reputation as Sacramento’s most effective political leader in years, wrote George Skelton.

Trump, by contrast, has focused much of his attention in the first six months of his tenure on trying to uproot what his predecessor, President Obama, put in place. So far, as I wrote, he has little to show for that effort.

Not only has Trump so far proved unable to get a bill passed to repeal Obamacare, this week, as Tracy Wilkinson and Bennett wrote, he had to recertify that Iran remains in compliance with the Obama administration’s nuclear deal.

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SOME OTHER STORIES OF NOTE

As Trump continues to struggle, Democratic hopes of winning back the House in 2018 are on the rise. A lot rests on the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ben Ray Lujan. Mascaro has this profile of the New Mexico congressman (and part-time llama farmer), whose genial manner contrasts with a job that requires a lot of cold-blooded decisions.

Among the Democrats’ top targets are several Orange County Republicans. Sarah Wire had this look at the most endangered of them, Rep. Darrell Issa.

Another of the Orange County Republicans, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, has been drawing increased attention for his ties to Putin, a topic he brushes aside as well known but unimportant. But Rohrabacher’s Kremlin connections are creating tensions with his colleague and Foreign Affairs committee chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, Wire wrote.

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Atty. Gen. Sessions has been one of the capital’s most committed crusaders against marijuana legalization. Now, as Evan Halper and Lauren Rosenblatt wrote, he’s got a new antagonist: Veterans groups are increasingly joining the fight to ease restrictions on medical marijuana. That puts groups like the American Legion at odds with the administration.

Another of Sessions’ priorities has been expanding police power to seize assets from people who have been arrested for certain crimes, even if they haven’t been convicted. Tanfani wrote about Sessions’ latest push on that issue, which has drawn protests from some conservative Republicans, as well as from Democrats.

One of the first test sites for Trump’s proposed border wall could be the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas — one of the nation’s top birding sites and a vital habitat for several endangered species. Wildlife advocates are already organizing to oppose the idea, Bennett and Jennie Jarvie report.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

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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.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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