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High-risk decisions with little consultation — Trump's legal team adopts his style

High-risk decisions with little consultation — Trump's legal team adopts his style
  (Los Angeles Times)

Impulsive, risky, aimed at holding the loyalty of the his core supporters — those characteristics of President Trump's actions have by now become familiar.

Rudy Giuliani's sudden announcement on Sean Hannity's TV program that Trump had, in fact, reimbursed his lawyer for the hush money that went to Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who claims she had an affair with Trump, shared all those hallmarks.

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Because Trump won the presidency in 2016, even his critics have a tendency to believe that a brilliant, if unorthodox, method must lie behind the seeming chaos that surrounds him. Giuliani's latest move provides evidence to the contrary: Sometimes chaos really is just what it seems.

THE PORN STAR AND THE PAYOFF

The word "backfire" popped up nearly everywhere in the day-after commentary on Giuliani's revelation.

George Conway, the prominent attorney and husband of White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, whose Twitter feed has become an eagerly watched ironic commentary on his wife's employer, tweeted a copy of the Federal Election Commission's guidelines on personal gifts and loans — one of several campaign finance and government ethics rules that Trump's arrangement with his lawyer, Michael Cohen, may have breached.

Trump confirmed Giuliani's comments in a series of tweets Thursday. On Friday, however, perhaps in response to the negative commentary, he tried to create some distance, saying that his lawyer, who started the job two weeks ago, "started yesterday."

"He'll get his facts straight. He's a great guy," Trump added in comments to reporters.

Did Giuliani make things worse for Trump? Noah Bierman, Joe Tanfani and Michael Finnegan asked that question in their article. As they noted, a lot of legal experts believe he did: The payments may have violated campaign finance laws, and, if so, Giuliani has publicly laid a trail to Trump's doorstep.

On the other hand, federal prosecutors in New York, having seized documents and computers from Cohen's office, home and hotel room, almost certainly already knew the details of any such payments by Trump to the lawyer.

Giuliani, who says he acted with Trump's knowledge, presumably wanted to get ahead of a story that would have become public anyway.

Doing so effectively demonstrated that the president had previously lied to reporters. That would count as just a small downside in an administration where the accuracy of what the president says has long since traded at a steep discount.

The fact that Giuliani blindsided the rest of Trump's legal team and his White House staff also now seems almost standard operating procedure.

The statement — and Trump's tweets — seemed designed in part to provide talking points for the president's core supporters. That's the constituency Trump cares most about and the one he ultimately needs to hold if Democrats retake control of the House and begin impeachment proceedings.

The big problem for Trump is that Giuliani's statement, while clearing up some questions, opened a series of others:

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When did Trump know about the payments? Did Cohen pay off Daniels in an effort to protect Trump's reputation (arguably legal) or in a bid to protect his presidential campaign (a potentially illegal, unreported campaign expenditure)? Since Trump paid Cohen much more than the $130,000 that went to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, to what purpose did the rest of the money go?

Finally, what message, if any, did Giuliani's comments signal to Cohen, who faces potential criminal prosecution by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, which Giuliani once headed? Trump has tweeted that he's sure Cohen won't "flip" against him. How sure?

MEANWHILE, MUELLER

The latest Stormy storm came as the independent counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and Trump once again appear headed toward a confrontation.

Only a month and a half ago, Trump, denying a New York Times story about an impending shakeup of his legal team, tweeted that he was happy with his lineup of John Dowd, Jay Sekulow and Ty Cobb, which had pursued a strategy of mostly cooperating with Mueller.

Since then, two of three have gone — Dowd replaced by Giuliani and Cobb replaced this week by Emmett Flood, who has previously opposed special counsels as a lawyer on the legal teams of both Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney.

Cobb was the member of Trump's team who most consistently advocated cooperating with Mueller. His departure in favor of Flood signals a more combative approach, Chris Megerian wrote.

We don't know, of course, exactly what shape the confrontation will take, but the probable outline appears clear: Mueller wants his prosecutors to interview Trump; the president and his lawyers want to avoid that. Mueller could issue a subpoena to compel Trump's testimony, Trump could go to court to try to have the subpoena quashed.

Two decades ago, Ken Starr, the independent counsel investigating President Clinton about a land deal, issued a subpoena for his testimony. A few weeks later, Clinton agreed to talk — his false statements in that interview about a sexual encounter formed the basis of the House vote to impeach him.

A generation before that, the Watergate special prosecutor demanded that Richard Nixon turn over White House tapes. The Supreme Court upheld that move, which led to Nixon's resignation after the tapes became public.

As those precedents indicate, the odds would be against Trump if he tried to refuse testimony across the board. But he might win an effort to restrict the questions Mueller and his investigators could ask, several experts told Megerian,

Trump and his spokespeople have argued, for example, that he can't be questioned about the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey because, as the president said in a tweet, "The questions are an intrusion into the President's Article 2 powers under the Constitution to fire any Executive Branch Employee."

That might not be a winning argument, but it's at least enough to get into court and delay any testimony. It could also give supportive senators an argument in an impeachment trial.

Even if Trump prevailed in court on that argument, however, Mueller might still have a lot to ask. As Megerian noted, the list of questions that Trump's lawyers compiled from their conversations with Mueller and his representatives — a list that became public this week — strongly indicates that possible Trump campaign collusion with Russians remains a main topic of the probe.

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House Republicans, meanwhile, released their report this week saying they found no collusion. Democrats called the report from the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee "a whitewash."

THE NUCLEAR FILES

While he fights with Mueller, Trump over the next several weeks must make key decisions on two international confrontations that involve nuclear arms.

First up, the fate of the deal with Iran that aims to restrain that country's nuclear program.

Late last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Washington to try to convince Trump to stick with the Iran deal, Tracy Wilkinson and Noah Bierman reported. Merkel followed French President Emmanuel Marcon. Neither European leader appears to have changed Trump's mind.

Critics of the Iran deal make two big arguments against it:

—The deal only fully constrains Iran for a decade and, by easing sanctions, could make the Tehran government stronger and more able to withstand international pressure in the meantime.

—And while it has succeeded in rolling back Iran's nuclear efforts, at least for now, the deal was not designed to do anything about other threatening Iranian activities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his initial visit to the Middle East this week to accuse Iran of "destabilizing and malign" activity across the region, Alex Zavis and Noga Tarnopolsky reported.

(Pompeo also got a warm welcome at the State Department as he started his new post, Tracy Wilkinson reported.)

The deal's supporters argue that, while it's not perfect, it has succeeded in rolling back a significant nuclear threat. Its shortcomings could be better addressed by staying in the deal and working to strengthen it than by pulling out, they say.

Whether Trump has thought deeply about those questions is doubtful. His public statements have generally indicated confusion about what the deal actually does. But he knows he doesn't like it and seems all but certain to at least begin the process of pulling the U.S. out of it next week.

Supporters of the Iran deal also argue that pulling out will discourage North Korea from negotiating seriously with the U.S. amid the recent push for better relations. After all, they say, why should anyone negotiate new deals if the U.S. won't stick to agreements it's already made.

North Korean officials have reportedly told the South Koreans that they would be willing to talk about giving up their nuclear arms as part of an agreement that would officially end the Korean War. Long-time Korea watchers express deep skepticism.

Trump seems enthusiastic about meeting with Kim Jon Un, but administration officials insist they're not "starry-eyed," Laura King and Matt Stiles reported.

Overall, as Bierman reported, Trump has developed a fairly clear pattern on the use of military force by his administration: He talks tough, but after 15 months, he's been risk averse when it comes to the actual use of military force.

TRADE FIGHT

Steel tariffs have squeezed U.S. businesses, and the resulting uncertainty threatens economic growth, Don Lee wrote.

This week, the administration put off a decision on which countries to exempt from the tariffs Trump announced in March — a move that frustrated some business groups that have pressed for a quick, clear decision.

The economic numbers, meanwhile, continue to be healthy but unspectacular. As Jim Puzzanghera wrote, figures showed a slight slowdown in economic growth during the first quarter, despite the impact of Trump's tax cuts. The same picture came from Friday's jobs report — steady growth, at about the same level as during the Obama administration.

FUEL ECONOMY

As Evan Halper wrote, EPA chief Scott Pruitt has signed off on a proposal that would strip California of its long-standing authority to set emissions standards that are tougher than the federal government requires.

A few days after Halper disclosed Pruitt's plan, California joined 16 other states and sued to block such a move, Patrick McGreevy and Halper wrote.

The EPA's plan could have far-reaching consequences for climate and clean air. Halper took a look at the impact.

TWO SIDES OF CALIFORNIA'S CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION

What's it like to be a cross-country flight away from your constituents — and your family? Sarah Wire took a look at the crazy commute that members of Congress from California endure.

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Meantime, Rep. Tony Cardenas denied uncorroborated allegations contained in a lawsuit regarding molesting a teenage girl. As Wire and Dave Zahniser reported, the suit doesn't name Cardenas, but rumors that he was the target have made their way through political circles.

On Thursday, Cardenas' lawyer Patricia Glaser confirmed that he was the unnamed John Doe referred to in the suit. But she vehemently denied that any of the allegations were true.

Our California politics team will be covering the state GOP conventino all weekend here.

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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