Brush up your Shakespeare. Start quoting him now. Polonius is dead – Hamlet stabbed him – and poor Ophelia “divided from herself and her fair judgment” is dead too. Things are a mess, and getting worse. That’s what Claudius explains to Gertrude – “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”
Claudius is explaining to Gertrude that it’s all her son’s fault. Hamlet’s screwed everything up, and of course Hamlet has created a political problem for the court – “the people muddied, thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers.”
Scandals will do that. Hamlet had been poking around. He had his anonymous unnamed source – his father’s ghost – and then a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence. Claudius had murdered his father, to marry his mother, Gertrude, and become king. The proof wasn’t clear – but the court really was thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers – and then everyone dies. It’s not a cheery play – and Hamlet was a bit of an indecisive dork – but the sorrows did come in battalions. It was one damned thing after another. Everyone’s thoughts were muddied.
Shakespeare can be useful. Donald Trump’s sorrows are now coming in battalions, and the latest was this:
Vice President Pence has hired outside legal counsel to help with both congressional committee inquiries and the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia. The vice president’s office said Thursday that Pence has retained Richard Cullen, a Richmond-based lawyer and chairman of McGuire Woods who previously served as a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Why would he do that? He’s been the clueless dork outside all the Trump scandals – always out of the loop – lied to and repeating those lies to the press. He’s as clueless as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but he did head the Trump transition team. He had been told about Michael Flynn – the lobbying for Turkey and Flynn’s Russian ties. It may be that Robert Mueller wants to ask him why he was fine with Michael Flynn as the new national security advisor. He may need a lawyer.
This seems a minor matter, but as Kevin Drum notes, it really is one damned thing after another:
The FBI is actively investigating ties between the president’s campaign and a hostile foreign power. Ditto for his former national security adviser. The FBI director has been fired for refusing to kill the investigation. The attorney general has recused himself. The deputy attorney general has appointed a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is busily hiring experts in money laundering. A few days ago Mueller widened the scope of his inquiry to include a criminal investigation of the president. Bipartisan congressional committees are holding hearings. The president himself has lawyered up, and now the vice president has lawyered up too.
This is not normal:
This would not be completely unprecedented if it happened in 2022, six years into Trump’s presidency. But it’s happened in Trump’s first five months. And while we’re all busy gaping at the spectacle of the whole thing, Republicans are trying to take health coverage away from millions of people so they can use the money to fund tax cuts for the rich – in secret.
This has actually caused some of those thoughts and whispers:
As they draft legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Senate Republican leaders are aiming to transform large sections of the American health care system without a single hearing on their bill and without a formal, open drafting session.
That has created an air of distrust and concern on and off Capitol Hill, with Democrats but also with Republicans.
“I’ve said from Day One, and I’ll say it again,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee. “The process is better if you do it in public, and that people get buy-in along the way and understand what’s going on. Obviously, that’s not the route that is being taken.”
This is not normal either:
In theory, the bill-writing process is open to any of the 52 Republican senators, but few seem to have a clear, coherent picture of what will be in the legislation.
Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, offered a hint of the same frustration felt by Democrats seeking more information about the bill.
“I come from a manufacturing background,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’ve solved a lot of problems. It starts with information. Seems like around here, the last step is getting information – which doesn’t seem to be necessarily the most effective process.”
At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, said that he also had not seen the Senate bill.
There will soon be a vote on this bill, even if most Republicans don’t even know what’s in it, and it will probably pass. Donald Trump will finally have his repeal-and-replace victory, his first legislation. One sorrow will pass, even if twenty-three million Americans lose their health insurance. Some people’s sorrows are more important that other people’s sorrows. Donald Trump will be relieved.
But it really is one damned thing after another – battalions of sorrows – and Mark Joseph Stern explains another swarm of those:
The attorneys general of D.C. and Maryland filed a suit on Monday alleging that the president’s receipt of foreign gifts and payments violated the Constitution. Two days later, nearly 200 members of Congress also sued Trump for the same purportedly unconstitutional conduct. Trump’s attorneys at the Department of Justice, meanwhile, are busy fighting another emoluments lawsuit, this one filed back in January on behalf of an ethics watchdog and Trump’s business competitors.
The hits keep coming, and that first lawsuit is curious:
Spearheaded by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, this lawsuit elevated the emoluments problem from academic blogs to front-page headlines. The Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause declares that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” CREW reads this clause very broadly, arguing that it bars the president from receiving any payment from a foreign government.
CREW hopes to obtain a court order compelling Trump to divest from his business empire, which continues to receive cash from foreign, state-owned corporations. Its secondary goal is much more modest: The group wants to get to discovery, allowing it to demand financial records from Trump and his business empire – including the president’s tax returns. To get to that point, however, CREW must prove it is an injured party and thus has standing to sue in court. CREW alleges that Trump injured the group by forcing it to divert valuable resources to an investigation into his ethics violations.
This theory of standing was clearly a long shot.
But there are the other two:
The Washington and Maryland suit is especially interesting, since both jurisdictions have a strong case for standing. Maryland argues that Trump’s D.C. hotel is drawing foreign business out of the state, reducing its tax revenue; the District of Columbia alleges the hotel is drawing business away from its convention center, which is taxpayer-owned. The congressional lawsuit, on the other hand, asserts Trump is injuring members of Congress by depriving them of the opportunity to vote on his emoluments. Because the Constitution allows the president to receive emoluments with “the consent of the Congress,” these representatives argue they must be able to allow or prohibit Trump’s acceptance of foreign payments.
That theory is certainly creative, although law professor and emoluments expert Andy Grewal doubts it will succeed since Congress could vote on Trump’s emoluments and has simply chosen not to.
Still, Stern says that’s trouble for Trump:
Both suits will force the Justice Department to continue defending Trump’s profiteering. If one makes it past the standing stage, the plaintiffs will enter the promised land of discovery (and tax returns). The emoluments litigation has already put Trump on the defensive and forced his lawyers to justify presidential enrichment; it now poses a real threat of unveiling his secretive business dealings as well.
And it only gets worse:
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors have also been examining the financial dealings of other Trump associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Carter Page, who was listed as a foreign-policy adviser for the campaign.
The Washington Post previously reported that investigators were scrutinizing meetings that Kushner held with Russians in December — first with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and then with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a state-owned Russian development bank. At the time of that report, it was not clear that the FBI was investigating Kushner’s business dealings.
Now it’s clear that the FBI is doing just that:
At the December meeting with Kislyak, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications line between Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.
The White House has said that the subsequent meeting with the banker was a pre-inauguration diplomatic encounter, unrelated to business matters. The Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been the subject of U.S. sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has said the session was held for business reasons because of Kushner’s role as head of his family’s real estate company. The meeting occurred as Kushner’s company was seeking financing for its troubled $1.8 billion purchase of an office building on Fifth Avenue in New York, and it could raise questions about whether Kushner’s personal financial interests were colliding with his impending role as a public official.
Trump’s sorrows mount, but as Adam Raymond reports, Trump is not alone:
Richard Burt, an American lobbyist who worked last year on behalf of Russian interests, attended two dinners with Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, during the campaign, he told The Guardian Thursday. Burt’s claim directly contradicts an answer from Sessions during his Senate testimony Tuesday.
Near the end of the hearing, Senator John McCain asked Sessions if he’d had “any contacts with any representative, including any American lobbyist or agent of any Russian company” during the presidential campaign.
Sessions, who said some version of “I don’t recall” at least 25 times Tuesday, answered slightly more authoritatively. “I don’t believe so,” he said.
Oops. Russia does keep coming up:
In September, The New Yorker reported on Burt’s role helping write President Trump’s first major foreign-policy speech. A couple weeks later, Politico added details about Burt attending two dinners hosted by Sessions. He was reportedly “invited to discuss issues of national security and foreign policy.” Politico also identified Burt as a lobbyist for Russian interests and said he spent 2016 working “to promote one of Vladimir Putin’s top geopolitical priorities.”
This is not the first time Sessions has been caught making false statements under oath about meetings with representatives of Russia. Last time, it took him nearly two months to correct the record.
That’s why he recused himself from all these matters. He will never be able to help Trump with Trump’s many battalions of troubles, not after this. Trump will have to help himself, but Chris Cillizza notes that Donald Trump is not good at that:
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton – the single biggest upset in modern American politics.
That was 219 days ago.
And yet, on Thursday afternoon, Trump sent two tweets attacking his former opponent.
“Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?” Trump tweeted just before 4 p.m. eastern time.
He followed that up 12 minutes later with a second tweet: “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared & they talk about obstruction?”
What these twin tweets suggest is something we already knew: Trump just can’t quit the 2016 election, and Clinton.
Cillizza carefully reviews what specific events Trump seemed to be referencing, not that it matters:
He spent weeks reveling in his stunning win. He reminded anyone who asked – and lots of people who didn’t – that he had won over 300 electoral votes, a feat people said was impossible for any Republicans. As his 100th day in office approached, Trump handed out electoral maps to reporters coming to talk to him about what he had done for those first 100 days.
Huge framed electoral maps were shown being brought into the White House.
The 2016 election represented Trump’s greatest triumph, his life’s work: Proving that all the elites who mocked him or said he couldn’t do something were mistaken all along. They had to eat their words. He was right. Everyone else was wrong. The end.
And that may make this a Shakespearian tragedy:
He won the election. He is the President – and the most powerful person in the country. That means he gets a level of scrutiny no one else does. Particularly when there is so much smoke swirling regarding the ties between Russia and his campaign, and his decision to fire Comey in the midst of a federal investigation into those allegations.
Trump can try to distract. He can try to deflect. He can complain about Clinton’s alleged transgressions. But what he can’t change is the fact that he is President, and this investigation isn’t going to disappear just because he sent two – or two hundred – tweets about Clinton.
It does seem tragic, and there may be the usual tragic flaw, as Josh Dawsey reports this:
Trump, for months, has bristled almost daily about the ongoing probes. He has sometimes, without prompting, injected “I’m not under investigation” into conversations with associates and allies. He has watched hours of television coverage every day – sometimes even storing morning news shows on his TiVo to watch in the evening – and complained nonstop.
“You may be the first president in history to go down because you can’t stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that, if you just were quiet, would clear you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said last weekend.
Think of Hamlet, aimlessly wandering the halls of Elsinore, talking to ghosts and muttering, mostly to himself, about the unfairness of it all, plotting revenge of various sorts, and sharing his outrage with his few friends, who might not be friends at all, or like Horatio, might want to calm him down:
Just as he has done publicly on Twitter, Trump has told friends and associates that the investigation is a “witch hunt” and that others are out to get him. “It’s basically all he talks about on the phone,” said one adviser who has spoken with Trump and his top aides.
Aides have tried to change the subject, with little luck. Advisers have tried to buck up the president by telling him to be patient, agreeing that it is a “witch hunt” and urging him to just let it play out – and reassuring him, “Eventually, you will be cleared,” in the words of one.
But none of that has changed Trump’s response.
“The frustration he feels is he fully well knows there was no collusion with Russia. And yet, he’s been on the hot seat about it for six months,” said Barry Bennett, a top campaign aide who continues to have ties to the White House. “He’s been told, ‘You’re not under investigation,’ and yet he still wakes up every day to read he’s under investigation. It’s really hard to be accused of being a traitor and take your lawyer’s advice to shut up and not talk about it.”
Perhaps that’s tragic, or a bit sick:
Two people close to Trump note that his is an obsessive personality – whether about businessmen who wronged him over the years, his years-long and fruitless quest to prove President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, to reporters who have written negative stories about him. One transition official said Trump lashed out at reporters over old stories within a day of winning the election in November.
This is dangerous:
Aides say they fear his incendiary tweets and public comments have spurred “countless” leaks of damaging information, in the words of one. Chief strategist Steve Bannon has told others that he believes the FBI is now out to get the Trump administration.
They have urged Trump to stop meddling – but he won’t.
So it came to this:
Trump now has begun fuming about special counsel Robert Mueller, particularly after Mueller hired several prosecutors and investigators with ties to Democrats. Trump has told associates he might fire Mueller, though they don’t believe he will. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Trump was under investigation for obstruction – and that Mueller wanted to interview the national security officials who reportedly had been asked to make false statements.
Trump woke up Thursday morning and appeared to question Mueller’s integrity on Twitter. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!” he wrote. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters she believed the president was responding to the Post story.
“He is totally in a box now,” one friend said. “And it might make him want to fire Mueller more.”
Hamlet stabs Polonius. “How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!”
Perhaps it won’t come to that:
“If he didn’t send about fifteen tweets that he’s done, he’d be in much better shape than he is right now,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “I kept thinking he would change from these self-destructive tendencies, but he may be the first president in history who brings himself down because he just can’t help himself.”
And everyone dies in the end.
Or maybe not, as Mike Allen notes this:
White House officials and Republicans sweating profusely for several reasons:
They know Trump talked to countless people about ending the Flynn probe, so they assume Comey’s version of events is true.
They assume he did, indeed, ask Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, if they could help derail the Flynn probe, as the Washington Post reported. They also assume he said similar things to other officials.
Nobody has privately mounted a straight-faced argument to us that Trump didn’t say this stuff to Comey or to Coats/Rogers. That’s telling in itself. The fact that the Trump public position – that Comey is a perjurer – isn’t being argued in private.
Any obstruction probe requires context, which means investigators digging into the finances of Flynn, Trump and Jared Kushner. This is the phase of the probe many Republicans have always feared most.
The obstruction probe is simply a new layer to the bigger underlying matters: Did Flynn have illegal or improper contacts, and did the Trump campaign collude with the Russians to influence the 2016 campaign? So the investigation is metastasizing.
Trump’s wife and Chief of Staff had to dissuade him from firing Mueller this week, the N.Y. Times reported. Why fire someone if you have nothing to hide?
Text to Jonathan Swan from a GOP operative close to the White House: “Leak was probably a response to stories about POTUS firing Mueller. He can’t fire him now.”
All he can do is aimlessly wander the halls of the White House, talking to ghosts and muttering, mostly to himself, about the unfairness of it all. When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions, but what can anyone do about that?