Jay Sekulow, a member of President Trump’s legal team, repeatedly said on four television shows June 18 that Trump isn’t under investigation by the special counsel. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)
THE MORNING PLUM:
Everybody is making a big deal about the extraordinary exchange between Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow and questioner Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” and for good reason. Sekulow repeatedly insisted that Trump is not under investigation, but then admitted he does not know this to be the case and struggled to explain why President Trump had confirmed on Twitter that he is indeed a target. Sekulow made this assertion — that Trump is not under investigation — on multiple other shows, with little success.
But for purposes of gaming out where this story is headed in coming days, there are two other major pieces of spin from Sekulow that need to be addressed. Both will be extensively employed by Team Trump in the future, and both highlight areas of critical unknowns that will be subjected to intense scrutiny soon enough.
To be sure, the claim that Trump is not under investigation is itself worth some attention. Sekulow repeatedly said Trump has not been notified that he is a target. This was in response to a Post report that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has widened the Russia probe to include an examination of whether Trump attempted to obstruct the inquiry. But as lawyers told the New York Times, it would not be unusual for Trump to be notified much later in the process that his conduct is being examined. Indeed, Sekulow acknowledged as much when he allowed he could not know for certain whether Trump is a focus. But this aside, here are two other important pieces of spin Sekulow offered:
Sekulow renewed the suggestion that Trump fired the FBI director at the recommendation of the deputy attorney general. NBC’s Chuck Todd pressed Sekulow on whether Trump had made the decision to fire former FBI director James B. Comey himself or at the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein. Sekulow mostly sidestepped the question, but he did suggest that Trump reached his decision through a “collaborative process” in which Trump considered Rosenstein’s recommendation (made in a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails).
This is absurd, because as we already know, Trump has confirmed on national television that he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s recommendation and that his motive was rooted in unhappiness with Comey’s handling of the Russia probe. But, more to the point, the fact that Sekulow is going here — again — means scrutiny will intensify on the meeting that Trump held with Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions just before firing Comey. The Post has reported that in that meeting, Trump — having already decided to fire Comey — demanded that Rosenstein memo as a rationale.
And so, investigators will likely try to determine whether Trump indicated in that meeting that he’d already made his decision, and indicated to them his reason for it, in effect enlisting them in an effort to create a cover story for the firing. Thus, Sekulow’s spin itself serves as a reminder that Trump’s conduct leading up to the firing of Comey will likely be examined. It’s hard to imagine this meeting not coming under scrutiny.
Sekulow deliberately narrowed the scope of the Trump conduct that’s at issue. On “Fox News Sunday,” Sekulow put additional spin on the idea that Trump fired Comey at Rosenstein’s recommendation, by complaining that Trump is “being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general and deputy attorney general recommended him to take by the agency who recommended the termination.” This notion, which reprises a complaint Trump himself voiced on Twitter, buffoonishly contradicts the suggestion that Trump isn’t under investigation, but put that aside for now. Sekulow is basically narrowing the question to one over whether Trump is being (or whether he should be) investigated for obstruction over the isolated act of firing Comey.
But this clever rhetorical trick deliberately excludes all of the other Trump conduct that is at issue. As noted above, questions remain about the process leading up to the firing. But beyond this, there are Comey’s claims to Congress that Trump demanded his loyalty as a condition for continuing to serve as FBI director at his pleasure, and that Trump pressed Comey to drop his probe into the Russia ties of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump also reportedly tried to get other top intelligence officials to intervene in the Flynn probe. Indeed, The Post’s report claiming that Trump is being examined for possible obstruction also noted that Mueller is reportedly set to interview those very officials.
As Lawfare Blog founder Benjamin Wittes has noted, in obstruction cases, prosecutors examine a pattern of conduct. Trump is accused of demanding that Comey shed his institutional independence as a condition for continued employment; of directly leaning on Comey to drop aspects of the probe into Trump’s campaign; and of trying to enlist other intel officials in that project. Trump did subsequently fire Comey when he refused Trump’s directives; and Trump’s own admitted reason for doing so strongly suggests he may have tried to enlist Sessions and Rosenstein in the creation of a fake cover story for that disturbing abuse of power. The known fact pattern is already deeply troubling, whether or not it ends up amounting to obstruction, and Sekulow’s rhetorical chicanery cannot make it disappear. Does anyone really believe that Mueller will not look at this pattern of conduct?
* THOSE COMEY TAPES ARE COMING … ANY DAY NOW: On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sekulow was asked when Trump would release those tapes of his conversations with James Comey. His answer:
“I think the president is going to address that in the week ahead. There was a lot of issues this past week … So the issue of the tapes, I think right now was not priority issue … I think it shows that the president is concentrating on governing. This issue will be addressed in due course and I suspect next week.”
Yes, Trump was too busy governing to get around to releasing evidence that will exonerate him in the probe that he tweets and obsesses about constantly. That’s the ticket!
* McCONNELL MAY FORCE QUICK HEALTH-CARE VOTE: Axios gets inside the reason that Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may force a vote on the Senate repeal-and-replace bill before the July 4 recess, even if it might not pass:
Sources close to Mitch McConnell tell me the Majority Leader is dead serious about forcing a Senate vote … Some senators want to delay the vote but McConnell views that as delaying the inevitable. There are no mysteries about what the toughest disagreements are over — Medicaid funding and insurance market regulations … [The sources] say he’s desperate to move on to tax reform and can’t have healthcare hanging around like a bad smell through the summer.
A bad smell? Even if it does pass, that bad smell will be hanging around bigly, because Republicans will then have to negotiate on how to fuse the Senate and House versions.
* McCONNELL’S SERIAL FLIP-FLOPS ON HEALTH-CARE PROCESS: Glenn Kessler has a useful look at how McConnell’s current handling of the process contradicts many of the complaints he made about Democrats in 2010. Summary:
He was against the reconciliation process for health care in 2010; he has embraced it now. He was against secrecy and closed-door dealmaking before; he now oversees the most secretive health-care bill process ever. And he was against voting on a bill that was broadly unpopular — and now he is pushing for a bill even more unpopular than the ACA in 2010.
And not only that, as Kessler explains, the process leading up to the Affordable Care Act was actually considerably more open, with lots of hearings of debates, than the current one is.
* WHY THE GEORGIA RACE MATTERS: Nate Silver notes that if the race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel is close, it will be a sign Trump is weighing down Republicans, no matter who wins. But that isn’t how it will be interpreted:
A loss for Handel would probably be interpreted by the GOP as a sign that the status quo wasn’t working. If even a few members of Congress began taking the exit ramp on Trump and the American Health Care Act, a number of others might follow. A win, conversely, would have a morale-boosting effect; Republicans would probably tell themselves that they could preserve their congressional majorities by turning out their base, even if some swing voters had abandoned them.
One imagines it’s possible Republicans may abandon the health-care push if Ossoff prevails. Meanwhile, spending on the race has now topped $50 million.
* DEMOCRATS FRET ABOUT POSSIBLE GEORGIA LOSS: Politico reports that internal Democratic surveys give Ossoff a slight edge, but Democrats are worried that a loss is still very possible and would have a devastating effect:
Operatives and lawmakers expect a withering round of internal second-guessing if they come up short after pumping enough money into the pro-Ossoff effort to make it the most expensive congressional race ever … they’re worried the fundraising and organizing fire fueling the party in the Trump era could wane after so many resources were poured into Georgia — especially with no other big-ticket races looming to re-energize the base until the off-year gubernatorial elections in November.
You can be certain that if Democrats lose by a tiny margin in this reliably red district, the media taunting will be absurdly over-the-top and absolutely brutal.
* WHICH SIDE IS MORE TO BLAME FOR ERODING NORMS? E.J. Dionne Jr. argues that ever since conservatives broke with George H.W. Bush, they have been beyond the reach of compromise, rendering any agreement with liberals impossible:
Say what you will about Obamacare, but it really did try to draw on conservative and Republican ideas … conservatives and Republicans … paint us as advocates of dangerous forms of statism. This has nothing to do with what we actually believe in or propose. Every gun measure is decried as confiscation. Every tax increase is described as oppressive. This simply shuts down dialogue before it can even start.
While norms have eroded on both sides for years, the GOP response to the Obama presidency — which was premised on the idea that any bipartisan agreement must be avoided, lest it lend his agenda legitimacy — surely hastened the process.
* WANTED: THREE REPUBLICANS WITH CONSCIENCES: Paul Krugman looks at the scandal that is the GOP health-care bill and the secretive process behind it, and concludes:
So this isn’t a Trump story; it’s about the cynicism and corruption of the whole congressional G.O.P. Remember, it would take just a few conservatives with conscience — specifically, three Republican senators — to stop this outrage in its tracks. But right now, it looks as if those principled Republicans don’t exist.
Right. Some Senate Republicans are complaining publicly about the process, but if they actually wanted more transparency, it would happen.