In any other administration, the news regarding North Korea — a secret mission by the CIA director to meet with Kim Jong Un, followed by tantalizing hints of North Korean negotiating flexibility — would have blotted out all other topics this week.
This being the Trump administration, the Korea news had to share billing with the legal jeopardy of the president’s lawyer, a jeremiad from the former FBI director and continued speculation about the fate of the special counsel’s investigation.
President Trump’s critics often accuse him of using a constant spray of Twitter posts, provocative statements and posturing to distract attention from his administration’s controversies. This week served up a reminder that the chaos swirling around Trump also can distract from his administration’s successes.
MISSION TO PYONGYANG
Trump himself broke the news about CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Kim, telling reporters Tuesday, during his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that direct talks with North Korea had begun at “extremely high levels.”
As Noah Bierman and Don Lee wrote, the announcement seemed to signal that plans for a once unlikely summit between Trump and Kim have gained momentum.
The next day, Trump followed up with more detail, saying that Pompeo had a “great meeting” with Kim.
The meeting did not lead to any immediate concessions by the North Koreans, who, so far, have managed to get something they want — high-level attention from the U.S. — in exchange for little more than a promise to negotiate later.
The trip did provide benefits for Pompeo, however, as Bierman and Cathy Decker wrote. He faces a close vote next week on his confirmation to be secretary of State. White House officials and their allies immediately began pointing to the Korea mission as proof of his readiness for the diplomatic job.
And it may well be that the negotiations are leading somewhere. On Thursday, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in suggested that substantive progress had been achieved. Speaking to news executives in Seoul, Moon said that the North Koreans had indicated a willingness to consider denuclearization without demanding withdrawal of the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
As always, Korea experts could point to many reasons for skepticism about what the North Koreans really meant. But there’s no question that tensions have ratcheted way down from the peak last summer. That’s given Trump grounds to claim that his tough rhetoric brought the North to the bargaining table.
Trump also nodded to one of Abe’s concerns, emphasizing the issue of Japanese citizens held in North Korea.
But Abe got nothing visible on the other major issue on their agenda — trade. As Lee wrote in advance of the meeting, the Japanese feel seriously snubbed by Trump, despite Abe’s efforts to flatter and befriend him.
THE LAWYER IN THE DOCK
Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was back in court this week — this time in the uncomfortable role of criminal defendant.
That alone provided a spectacle with few parallels. The president’s personal lawyer faces enough legal jeopardy that prosecutors earlier this month were able to persuade a judge to give them a warrant to search his office, his home and a hotel room and seize potentially thousands of documents and files.
Then, another twist developed when U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood, presiding over the case, told Cohen’s lawyers that they had to publicly disclose the name of one of Cohen’s three clients, whose identity they had tried to keep secret.
As Joe Tanfani wrote, there were audible gasps in the courtroom when the lawyer revealed the secret client: Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator and staunch ally of Trump’s.
The subject of the hearing was an effort by lawyers for Cohen and Trump to try to block prosecutors from looking at the evidence they seized in the raid last week. They lost, although the judge did suggest she might appoint an independent special master to review the material to ensure that documents shielded by attorney-client privilege don’t go to investigators.
A few days later, in another court, this time in Virginia, prosecutors in the case against Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, revealed that they have been investigating whether he served as a “back channel” between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The prosecutors did not say whether that investigation has turned up evidence of such a channel, and the charges against Manafort involve financial crimes, not campaign-related ones. Nonetheless, the disclosure provided confirmation of a significant part of the investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
COMEY’S BOOK TOUR
The Trump administration sure does sell books.
The latest to cash in: former FBI Director James B. Comey, whose book “A Higher Loyalty” hit the stores this week and became an instant bestseller.
Comey launched his publicity tour for the book with an interview on ABC with George Stephanopoulos in which he likened Trump to a mob boss, calling him “morally unfit” for the presidency and a “stain” on those around him.
Trump suggested the former FBI chief should be imprisoned.
As Tanfani wrote, the extraordinary interview included Comey saying that he thinks it is possible that the president is in fact compromised by Russian intelligence.
Asked in the interview whether he thought Russia “has something” on Trump, Comey said: “I think it’s possible. I don’t know.”
Comey has taken fire from at least two directions. Trump’s allies call him a liar and accuse him of being out to get the president. And many Democrats can’t forgive Comey for the damage he did to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Comey insists his actions were justified, which has incensed many Clinton supporters.
What impact will all this have politically? As usual, don’t count on a big swing in public opinion. Most Americans have very firmly held views about Trump. That’s especially true among those who oppose him.
Among Trump’s supporters, some back him fervently. But there’s a significant minority whose support is softer. The question will be, over time, whether Comey’s charges sway some of them.
So far, despite a few polls that seem to be outliers, Trump’s approval rating has barely budged up or down since the beginning of January.
FESTIVAL OF BOOKS
And speaking of books, are you planning to attend this weekend’s L.A. Times Festival of Books? It’s a great event — the biggest book festival in the country and a showcase for ideas and literature in California. My colleagues from the California Politics team and from the Washington bureau will be there in force.
Here’s the full schedule. To see where we’ll be, filter the list by Politics & History. Also, don’t miss the Ask a Reporter booth on campus.
FIRING MUELLER, NOT FIRING MUELLER?
Immediately after the raid on Cohen’s office, an angry president mused in public about firing Mueller. By midweek, he appeared to have backed away from that idea.
Then on Thursday, Trump announced that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would be joining his legal team. As Chris Megerian wrote, the appointment had the express purpose of repairing relations between the White House and Mueller, with whom Giuliani worked when he was a Justice Department lawyer.
Meantime, as David Savage wrote, administration lawyers continue to hold the view that Trump could fire Mueller if he chose to.
The latest evidence of that comes from a seemingly unrelated case before the Supreme Court involving the status of administrative law judges at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Solicitor General Noel Francisco has urged the justices to use that case to make a broad ruling that the president is “authorized under our constitutional system to remove all principal officers, as well as all ‘inferior officers’” in the executive branch.
Will the justices take that bait? We’ll get a first clue when the case is argued on April 23. Check back to see what Savage gleans from the hearing.
THE DECIDING VOTE?
When Gina Haspel, Trump’s choice as CIA director, comes before the Senate for a confirmation hearing scheduled for May 9, the issue of torture will be back at the center of debate.
As Megerian wrote, the deciding voice in that debate seems likely to belong to the one senator who has been a victim of torture, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was brutalized as a POW in Vietnam. Haspel’s opponents hope McCain will speak out against her for her involvement in harsh interrogations during the George W. Bush administration.
Her supporters have mustered the backing of intelligence officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations.
McCain, who has been in Arizona for months undergoing treatments for brain cancer, is scheduled to return to the Senate in early May.
DEATH BY CLEAN CAR?
In his efforts to overturn California’s requirements for greater fuel economy for new cars, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has dusted off an old argument: smaller, lighter cars kill people.
As Evan Halper wrote, independent analysts, including some who once warned about the downside of lighter vehicles, now say that argument is outmoded. But Pruitt hasn’t let it go.
Despite some talk of compromise, the Trump administration and California still appear to be on a collision course over fuel economy. The tough requirements put in place by California and a dozen other states are key to efforts to combat global warming, supporters say.
Pruitt also continues to be dogged by ethical issues. This week, the government’s fiscal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, said EPA broke the law with its efforts to build Pruitt a $43,000 phone booth for his office. Pruitt said he needed the booth to make secure, classified calls.
BACKING AWAY FROM A POT FIGHT
Another potential confrontation between the administration and California involves marijuana. Earlier this year, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would no longer follow an Obama-era policy that barred prosecuting marijuana sellers in states that allow legal weed.
But Trump doesn’t share Sessions’ anti-pot fervor and has frequently dissed his embattled attorney general. He added to that disregard by overturning Sessions’ policy on pot, without so much as a heads up, Halper wrote.
FROM L.A. TO IOWA
Finally, the 2020 election may feel a long way away, but it’s never too early for an ambitious politician to visit Iowa. Or for Mark Barabak to follow him.
Here’s Barabak’s account of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s foray to the state that helped launch Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter but dashed the dreams of a score of others.
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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