Setting aside the matter of that groundhog and his (or her) shadow, everyone knows that March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb – and April is the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire, unless it’s April in Paris, with those chestnuts in blossom – and everyone knows it’s all nonsense. Any single day can be a bellwether – kind or cruel – lion or lamb. Any single day can indicate the future, one way or another. On any single day the wheels can come off. Bob Dylan had it right. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and this year, on the last day of February, a cold wind was blowing in Washington. The wheels were coming off. Everything was going wrong for the Trump administration. There was no need to wait for April, the cruelest month. This was the cruelest day. This could be the beginning of the end.
That’s been said before, but this time there was too much evidence that things had spun out of control, starting with this:
Hope Hicks, President Trump’s communications director and one of his longest-serving advisers, said Wednesday that she planned to leave the White House in the next few weeks.
Ms. Hicks, 29, a former model who joined Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign without any experience in politics, became known as one of the few aides who understood Mr. Trump’s personality and style and could challenge the president to change his views.
She was the one who could calm him down and keep him from doing anything really stupid – maybe – and she had been at the center of things:
Her title belied the extent of her power within the West Wing – after John F. Kelly was appointed White House chief of staff, she had more access to the Oval Office than almost any other staff member. Her own office, which she inherited after the departure of another Trump confidant, Keith Schiller, was just next door.
Most significantly, Mr. Trump felt a more personal comfort with Ms. Hicks than he has established with almost any of his other, newer advisers since coming to Washington. And for a politician who relies so heavily on what is familiar to him, her absence could be jarring.
But there was this:
Her resignation came a day after she testified for eight hours before the House Intelligence Committee, telling the panel that in her job, she had occasionally been required to tell white lies but had never lied about anything connected to the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
She should not have said that:
According to CNN, Trump was furious with the head of his communications shop following her testimony. In a report presented on OutFront with Erin Burnett, the host (citing an unnamed person identified as a Trump ally) said that the president “berated” Hicks following her testimony on Tuesday.
“That source telling me Hicks departure was sudden,” Burnett continued. “The source saying Trump berated Hicks after her testimony to Congress yesterday, you know, the nine hours in which she admitted to telling lies on behalf of the president.”
“According to the source, Trump asked Hicks after the testimony, how she could she be so stupid,” Burnett continued. “And apparently that was the final straw for Hope Hicks.”
That may have happened, unless Burnett’s single source was a troublemaker in the White House who resented the woman, but the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin says that hardly matters:
Will her departure matter? On a political level, likely not. Trump is not one to be contained, be it by his chief of staff or his daughter and son-in-law. In other words, she didn’t seem to have mystical powers to manage him. Trump, we have learned, remains Trump regardless of who is around him.
Her departure, however, may be bad news for Trump from a legal standpoint. She is a direct witness to much of the day-to-day goings on in the White House. She was present on Air Force One for a critical episode in the Russia affair. She reportedly was involved in the drafting of a memo that did not accurately recount the reason for the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. Beyond that we do not know what more she has heard or if she has knowledge of regarding either “collusion” or Trump’s repeated attempts to throw the Russian investigation off track.
That’s the real problem:
Now, she has already spoken to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but freed from the White House, she may be just a tad more inclined to disclose information or to help guide the special prosecutor through the events of the past year. She also, and this is key, worked with Trump in his real estate business – in fact she knew very little about politics before the 2016 campaign. As Mueller begins to delve deeper and deeper into Trump’s financial affairs and his connection to Russian money, she may have an unusual inside account as to how he operated and the people with whom he interacted.
The wheels were coming off, and at the same time, an old feud got hot again:
President Donald Trump on Wednesday sparred with his top law enforcement official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, slamming his “disgraceful” handling of an inquiry into Republican allegations of surveillance abuses by the FBI in the Russia probe.
“Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I. G. [Inspector General] an Obama guy?”
“Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!” Trump added.
The tirade referred to a decision Tuesday by Sessions to allow his agency’s inspector general to determine whether FBI officials broke any rules or laws in obtaining a warrant to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign associate beginning in October 2016, around the same time the FBI began looking at possible Russians efforts to interfere in the presidential election.
Trump wants Jeff Sessions to go after his own FBI for not hammering his FBI guys in this matter – they did nothing to stop the investigation of Carter Page and the Russians – but Sessions was having none of that:
In a rare move, Sessions defended himself in a sharply worded statement in which he said he would continue to do his work “with integrity and honor” – as long as he stayed on the job.
“We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary,” Sessions said in a statement. “As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”
In short, he will discharge his duties with integrity and honor – unlike the president – and as Axios reports, he then twisted the knife:
If Donald Trump finally follows through on his rage and fires Jeff Sessions, the image with this story will be printed in history books. Tonight at 7:35 pm, the Attorney General strode into a high-end Washington restaurant to dine with his deputy Rod Rosenstein and the Solicitor General Noel Francisco.
The symbolism was unmistakable: the three top ranking officials in the Justice Department appearing together in a show of solidarity on the same day Trump is publicly and privately raging about Sessions.
When Trump sees the photo he’ll have to absorb a concept that some of his aides have been trying to impress upon him for nearly a year, since he first began telling them he wanted to get rid of Sessions.
Fire Sessions, then what next? Are you going to fire Rosenstein too? And then… what after that?
Donald Trump doesn’t think things through. He rages. His base loves that, but the same cruel day brought this:
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been investigating a period of time last summer when President Trump seemed determined to drive Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his job, according to people familiar with the matter who said that a key area of interest for the inquiry is whether those efforts were part of a months-long pattern of attempted obstruction of justice.
In recent months, Mueller’s team has questioned witnesses in detail about Trump’s private comments and state of mind in late July and early August of last year, around the time he issued a series of tweets belittling his “beleaguered” attorney general, these people said. The thrust of the questions was to determine whether the president’s goal was to oust Sessions in order to pick a replacement who would exercise control over the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates during the 2016 election, these people said.
That’s an issue:
It’s no secret in Washington that the relationship between the president and the attorney general has been badly broken for months. The president has repeatedly issued public broadsides, calling Sessions “weak” or criticizing his leadership of the Justice Department, despite the attorney general’s frequent proclamations of devotion to Trump’s agenda on immigration and crime.
Behind the scenes, Trump has derisively referred to Sessions as “Mr. Magoo,” a cartoon character who is elderly, myopic and bumbling, according to people with whom he has spoken. Trump has told associates that he has hired the best lawyers for his entire life, but is stuck with Sessions, who is not defending him and is not sufficiently loyal.
And there’s this:
On the anniversary of Sessions’ confirmation earlier this month, senior aides decided to buy Sessions a bulletproof vest with his name emblazoned on it as a gift, according to a person familiar with the matter.
That’s cute, but Trump’s rage may do him in, and there’s this to consider:
Justice Department veterans have long worried that Trump’s repeated public attacks on the department and the FBI are undermining the legitimacy of those agencies, which could cause lasting damage to federal law enforcement.
“The continued drumbeat of overheated attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI, coming from all corners of the Hill, the media, and elsewhere, can’t help but undermine both morale and the legitimacy of institutions themselves, but today’s tweet is just another drop in an already overflowing bucket,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder of the National Security Institute at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. “Of course, the bigger challenge is that if the concerns aren’t legitimate, then we are playing right into the hands of those abroad who wish to undermine these very critical institutions of our democracy.”
In short, Trump’s rage is also dangerous, except to Vladimir Putin, who may, as Trump has said, be laughing is ass off. Trump simply got the details wrong.
But that wasn’t all, because the day got even worse:
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is asking witnesses pointed questions about whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.
Mueller’s investigators have asked witnesses whether Trump was aware of plans for WikiLeaks to publish the emails. They have also asked about the relationship between GOP operative Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia.
The line of questioning suggests the special counsel, who is tasked with examining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, is looking into possible coordination between WikiLeaks and Trump associates in disseminating the emails, which U.S. intelligence officials say were stolen by Russia.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion and has described the special counsel’s investigation as “illegal” and a “witch hunt.”
That’s not going to fly now:
In one line of questioning, investigators have focused on Trump’s public comments in July 2016 asking Russia to find emails that were deleted by his then-opponent Hillary Clinton from a private server she maintained while secretary of state. The comments came at a news conference on July 27, 2016 – just days after WikiLeaks began publishing the Democratic National Committee emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said.
Witnesses have been asked whether Trump himself knew then that Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, whose emails were released several months later, had already been targeted. They were also asked if Trump was advised to make the statement about Clinton’s emails from someone outside his campaign, and if the witnesses had reason to believe Trump tried to coordinate the release of the DNC emails to do the most damage to Clinton, the people familiar with the matter said.
Things are starting to smell fishy:
At that same July 2016 news conference where he referenced Clinton’s missing emails, candidate Trump said he was open to lifting sanctions on Russia and possibly recognizing its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. The U.S. and its European allies had sanctioned Russia because of its intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, which the Obama administration refused to recognize.
Investigators have asked witnesses why Trump took policy positions that were friendly toward Russia and spoke positively about Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to people familiar with the probe.
Investigators have also inquired whether Trump met with Putin before becoming president, including if a meeting took place during Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow for his Miss Universe pageant. Trump has given conflicting responses on when he first met Putin.
At least one witness was asked about Trump’s business interests in Moscow and surmised afterward that the special counsel investigation may be focused on business dealings that took place during the campaign.
The wheels are coming off, and then, late in the day, the New York Times dropped this:
Early last year, a private equity billionaire started paying regular visits to the White House. Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, was advising Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy. During that period, he met on multiple occasions with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said three people familiar with the meetings. Among other things, the two men discussed a possible White House job for Mr. Harris.
The job never materialized, but in November, Apollo lent $184 million to Mr. Kushner’s family real estate firm, Kushner Companies. The loan was to refinance the mortgage on a Chicago skyscraper.
Even by the standards of Apollo, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, the previously unreported transaction with the Kushners was a big deal: It was triple the size of the average property loan made by Apollo’s real estate lending arm, securities filings show.
But that’s not all:
It was one of the largest loans Kushner Companies received last year. An even larger loan came from Citigroup, which lent the firm and one of its partners $325 million to help finance a group of office buildings in Brooklyn.
That loan was made in the spring of 2017, shortly after Mr. Kushner met in the White House with Citigroup’s chief executive, Michael L. Corbat, according to people briefed on the meeting. The two men talked about financial and trade policy and did not discuss Mr. Kushner’s family business, one person said.
There is little precedent for a top White House official meeting with executives of companies as they contemplate sizable loans to his business, say government ethics experts.
“This is exactly why senior government officials, for as long back as I have any experience, don’t maintain any active outside business interests,” said Don Fox, the former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics during the Obama administration and, before that, a lawyer for the Air Force and Navy during Republican and Democratic administrations. “The appearance of conflicts of interest is simply too great.”
Donald Trump doesn’t think things through. Making his son-in-law – with no experience in anything at all other than commercial real estate – his de facto secretary of state and pretty much his secretary-of-everything-else might have been a bad idea. That young fellow has baggage:
Mr. Kushner’s tenure in the White House has been dogged by questions about conflicts of interest between his government work and his family business, in which he remains heavily invested. Mr. Kushner steers American policy in the Middle East, for example, but his family company continues to do deals with Israeli investors.
This blurring of lines is now a potential liability for Mr. Kushner, who recently lost his top-secret security clearance amid worries from some United States officials that foreign governments might try to gain influence with the White House by doing business with Mr. Kushner.
Investigators working for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, have asked questions about Mr. Kushner’s interactions with potential investors from overseas, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Kushner’s firm has sought investments from the Chinese insurer Anbang and from the former prime minister of Qatar.
But one cannot blame those other guys:
Apollo has sought ways to benefit from the White House’s possible infrastructure plan. And its executives, including Mr. Harris, had tens of millions of dollars personally at stake in the tax overhaul that was making its way through Washington last year.
Citigroup, one of the country’s largest banks, is heavily regulated by federal agencies and, like other financial companies, is trying to get the government to relax its oversight of the industry.
They saw an opportunity. They took it. And then things got even worse:
New York’s state banking regulator asked Deutsche Bank AG and two other lenders for information on their relationships with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and his family’s real estate company, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) made the requests to Deutsche Bank, Signature Bank and New York Community Bank for information on loans and other financial arrangements including lines of credit and loan guarantees a week ago, the person said.
The regulator also asked for information related to other family members, the person said.
It’s not just Robert Mueller. This was a bad day, a cruel day, and then it turned into a farce:
President Trump upended modest Republican gun-control proposals and defied the National Rifle Association during a freewheeling session with lawmakers Wednesday that the president said should yield comprehensive restrictions “on the strong side.”
But in the televised meeting at the White House, Trump sent so many mixed signals about what he envisioned for a package on firearms and school safety that he left Democrats gleeful and Republicans tight-lipped amid doubts that Congress would produce any legislation.
He did manage to confuse everyone:
Sitting with a group of Democrats and Republicans, including some who are backed by the NRA, Trump made what sounded like an extraordinary break with the powerful gun-rights organization. He accused lawmakers of being so “petrified” by the NRA that they have not been willing to take even small steps on gun control.
“They have great power over you people,” Trump said. “They have less power over me.”
He’s a hero. They’re all cowards, especially the Republicans. This was not going well, but it did sound familiar:
The session was reminiscent of a bipartisan White House meeting Trump convened in January on immigration, in which the unpredictable president promised to sign any compromise solution Congress could craft, only to reject the outcome days later. Behind the scenes, administration officials had sabotaged a bipartisan bill that inevitably collapsed.
They’d all been there before, but they let him ramble on:
On Wednesday, Trump backed or said he would consider tougher background checks for gun buyers, greater police power to seize guns from mentally disturbed people, the outlawing of “bump stock” devices and tighter age limits for buying rifles such as that used in Parkland.
Most striking were Trump’s remarks decrying what he called excessive “checks and balances” that limit what can be done to prevent mentally unfit people from buying or keeping guns.
“Take the firearms first, and then go to court,” Trump said, cutting off Vice President Pence as Pence articulated a version of the due-process arguments that the NRA and other gun-rights advocates have used to derail past gun-control measures. “You could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Oops. That was going too far:
That prompted a stunning rebuke from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who accused Trump of flouting the Constitution.
“Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them,” Sasse said in a statement. “We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason. We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them.”
Trump didn’t care:
Trump pressed lawmakers to send him “one terrific bill” combining several proposals aimed at reducing gun violence, although that could complicate the legislative outlook for such a contentious issue in an election year.
“It would be so beautiful to have one bill,” Trump said at the outset.
No one quite knew what he wanted to have in that one beautiful bill. He just wanted it to be beautiful, but he was grounded on one matter:
In between, he dismissed an NRA-backed proposal to expand gun owners’ ability to carry concealed weapons, saying it would spoil the package he wants lawmakers to assemble.
“If you add concealed carry to this, you’ll never get it passed,” Trump told House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the chamber’s chief vote-counter and a survivor of a mass shooting last year. “We want to get something done,” Trump told Scalise.
That was his one nod to reality, and this was predictable:
Trump’s embrace of several tougher restrictions on firearms – steps strongly opposed by many Republicans and the NRA – drew a giddy response from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a proponent of an assault weapons ban.
Hours before the summit, Democrats called on Trump to back expanded background checks, throwing their weight behind a measure that failed to clear Congress after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Now, after the Florida high school shooting, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and other top Democrats think that Trump could help muscle through a measure long opposed by the NRA and many GOP lawmakers.
Feinstein and Schumer should know better:
Although Trump appeared to support what would be the largest effort to enact new gun control in more than a decade, it was not clear what role he would play and whether he would try to insulate lawmakers from a gun-rights backlash.
“I thought it was fascinating television,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said afterward, suggesting the president was playing to the cameras.
Cornyn was being snide. He knows. His president, the Republicans’ president, is no more than a reality-television provocateur. It’s all about those boffo ratings. Be shocking. Anything shocking will do. Everyone loves that.
Aaron Blake sums it up nicely:
Less than half an hour into his meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday, President Trump urged the illegal confiscation of guns, told a Republican (to his face) that he was scared of the NRA and threw a series of wrenches into Congress’s legislative strategy on guns. In other words, another meeting with Trump.
Bob Dylan got it right. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and on the last day of February, a cold wind was blowing in Washington. This was the cruelest day. This could be the beginning of the end.