This was the weekend that Donald Trump gloated. He had fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017, but that had backfired. Comey had told Congress the Trump campaign had been under investigation since the summer before – something seemed fishy with the Russians – and there was something fishy about Michael Flynn too, Trump’s national security advisor. He had pulled Comey aside, to speak with him privately – drop the Flynn business. Comey balked, and then Comey was gone. Trump said it never happened. Comey said he took notes – “contemporaneous notes” as they’re called. Trump said he was lying and Comey had better hope there were no White House tapes of those conversations. There were no tapes, and Comey had shared his notes with his peers, including FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and now Robert Mueller has them. Trump then said Comey’s firing has nothing to do with that – Comey had handled the Hillary Clinton business badly and everyone at the FBI hated him anyway. That lasted one day. The day after he fired Comey he boasted to the Russian ambassador that he had rid himself of all that Russia nonsense – in a meeting closed to the American press – but the Russian press covered it. Then he told Lester Holt, on national television, he had fired Comey pretty much because of that Russia business. That’s why Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in charge now, appointed Robert Mueller to look into all of this – Rosenstein said he had no choice.
Everything went wrong. Something had to done, because Mueller was going to ask Andrew McCabe about Comey’s notes. He had to “get” Andrew McCabe. He did. He got him fired, a few hours before he would be vested in his pension plan. He’d worked for decades at the FBI and now wouldn’t get a penny. Trump used all the levers of government to ruin the man financially – and he did. McCabe will still talk to Mueller, but at least Trump ruined his life. He could gloat. He could also say he didn’t fire McCabe, the FBI did – but Jeff Sessions, the attorney general – responsible for the FBI – wants to keep his job. Jeff Sessions had no choice. It was sweet revenge.
A less harsh way to look at this is this:
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was fired on Friday – hours before he was due to retire. McCabe was a frequent target of harsh criticism from President Trump, and though his firing was recommended through internal FBI channels, Trump’s public ire towards McCabe has tainted his dismissal with a whiff of impropriety. The ex-deputy director’s firing has also jeopardized the pension he would have received as a 21-year-veteran of the Bureau.
The FBI’s professional review office recommended that McCabe be fired for “lack of candor” concerning the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton. McCabe was accused of lying about his decision to allow FBI officials to speak to the press…
That may or may not be true – his job included making things clear to the press so that’s a judgment call – and he was already out of the way. McCabe had stepped down from his post in January, and was using accumulated vacation time to remain on the rolls until his official retirement date, but Trump tweeted his gloating anyway:
Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!
The hard working men and women of the FBI are scared shitless now – any one of them could be next – but Trump was on a mission:
Trump has repeatedly posted critical tweets about McCabe since July of 2017, when he asked why Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t “replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation.”
That’s been going on for months – David Frum has the full details – but then this happened:
McCabe promptly issued a remarkable statement regarding his firing, saying that he was, “singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey.”
He suggested that his termination is an effort to undermine the Mueller investigation. “This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally,” he continued, “but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.”
McCabe, himself a lifelong Republican, has long attracted criticism from his fellow conservatives. His Democrat wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, accepted donations from Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe during her failed 2015 run for a Virginia state Senate seat, causing conservatives to speculate that McCabe had a conflict of interest in his role at the FBI.
In his statement, McCabe wrote that his firing was part of a broader attack on the FBI from the Trump administration: “The big picture is a tale of what can happen when law enforcement is politicized, public servants are attacked, and people who are supposed to cherish and protect our institutions become instruments for damaging those institutions and people.”
And he has notes too:
Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy FBI director who was fired late Friday, kept contemporaneous memos about his interactions with President Trump and his conversations with the former director James B. Comey, a person close to Mr. McCabe said on Saturday.
The memos could bolster the account of Mr. Comey, whose own memos and testimony describe repeated requests by Mr. Trump to clear his name. Mr. Comey said Mr. Trump also asked him to shut down a criminal investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Both matters are under investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is considering whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct justice.
Mr. McCabe’s memos were left at the FBI, which means that Mr. Mueller’s investigators have access to them as they work to corroborate Mr. Comey’s account…
Mr. McCabe is known to have had at least three meetings with the president. In one, he asked Mr. McCabe how he had voted in the presidential election. In each, he asked about Mr. McCabe’s wife, Jill, who ran a failed campaign as a Democrat for the Virginia State Senate. Mr. McCabe has identified as a lifelong Republican but did not vote in the 2016 presidential race.
Nothing seems to be going right for Donald Trump at the moment, but a vain man, when he can’t gloat, goes on the attack:
President Trump on Sunday abandoned a strategy of showing deference to the special counsel examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, lashing out at what he characterized as a partisan investigation and alarming Republicans who feared he might seek to shut it down.
Mr. Trump has long suggested that allegations that he or his campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election were a “hoax” and part of a “witch hunt,” but until this weekend he had largely heeded the advice of lawyers who counseled him not to directly attack Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for fear of antagonizing prosecutors.
“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Another Dem recently added…does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!”
There are no thirteen hardened Democrats – but no matter – and there’s a real matter to consider:
The attack on Mr. Mueller, a longtime Republican and former FBI director appointed by a Republican president, George W. Bush, drew immediate rebukes from some members of the party who expressed concern that it might presage an effort to fire the special counsel. Such a move, they warned, would give the appearance of a corrupt attempt to short-circuit the investigation and set off a bipartisan backlash.
“If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule-of-law nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ally of the president, said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “When it comes to Mr. Mueller, he is following the evidence where it takes him, and I think it’s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference, and there are many Republicans who share my view.”
Among them was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a sharp critic of Mr. Trump who appeared on the same program. “People see that as a massive red line that can’t be crossed,” he said. He urged Mr. Trump’s advisers to prevail on him not to fire Mr. Mueller. “We have confidence in Mueller.”
And there was more:
Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said if the president was innocent, he should “act like it” and leave Mr. Mueller alone, warning of dire repercussions if the president tried to fire the special counsel.
“I would just counsel the president – it’s going to be a very, very long, bad 2018, and it’s going to be distracting from other things that he wants to do and he was elected do,” Mr. Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Let it play out its course. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible.”
The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, issued a statement likewise warning Mr. Trump to back off. “As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman.
On the other hand:
His counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had no comment, as did a number of other top Senate Republicans.
Late in the day, the White House tried to douse the furor. “In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the administration, the White House yet again confirms that the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller,” Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer, said in a statement.
But on another other hand:
The president’s tweet followed a statement by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, on Saturday calling on the Justice Department to end the special counsel investigation. Mr. Trump followed up that evening with a tweet arguing that “the Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.”
The two weekend tweets were the first time Mr. Trump has used Mr. Mueller’s name on Twitter, not counting a message he once retweeted, and reflected what advisers called a growing impatience fueled by anger that the investigation was now looking at his business activities.
He did say that his business activities and his tax returns were off-limits to Mueller, for what that’s worth – not much – and there’s this:
A president cannot directly fire a special counsel but can order his attorney general to do so. Even then, a cause has to be cited, like conflict of interest. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a former campaign adviser – has recused himself from the Russia investigation – to Mr. Trump’s continuing irritation – the task would fall to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.
But Mr. Rosenstein said as recently as last week that he sees no justification for firing Mr. Mueller, meaning that he would either have to change his mind or be removed himself. The third-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rachel Brand, knowing this issue could reach her, decided last month to step down. The next official in line would be the solicitor general, Noel J. Francisco, a former White House and Justice Department lawyer under Mr. Bush.
That’s unfortunate, at least for Donald Trump, but as for the now financially ruined but still dangerous McCabe, Trump had this to say:
“Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me,” Mr. Trump wrote. “I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?”
Michael R. Bromwich, McCabe’s lawyer, fired back, by accusing the president of corrupting the law enforcement system. “We will not be responding to each childish, defamatory, disgusting and false tweet by the President,” he wrote on Twitter. “The whole truth will come out in due course. But the tweets confirm that he has corrupted the entire process that led to Mr. McCabe’s termination and has rendered it illegitimate.”
This is not going well for Donald Trump, and much of this is new, and the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman suggests why:
For months, President Trump’s legal advisers implored him to avoid so much as mentioning the name of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, in his tweets, and to do nothing to provoke him or suggest his investigation is not proper. Ignoring that advice over the weekend was the decision of a president who ultimately trusts only his own instincts and now believes he has settled into the job enough to rely on them rather than the people who advise him.
A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him. That self-confidence has led to a series of surprising comments and actions that have pushed the Trump presidency in an ever more tumultuous direction.
Something has changed:
Long wary about publicly expressing his belief in the death penalty for drug dealers, he proposed it at a rally in Pennsylvania. “Probably you will have some people that say that’s not nice,” he said.
He bragged about making up an assertion in a conversation with the leader of a close ally, Canada, and called a reporter a “son of a bitch.”
He barreled ahead with a plan to meet with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to the dismay of much of the diplomatic corps.
He vanquished the economic aides he had previously seen as having more stature than he did by announcing he would go ahead with tariffs on certain imports, alarming key allies.
And then this weekend he seemed to raise the possibility of dismissing Mr. Mueller.
One thing does lead to another, and Haberman offers this:
Projecting strength, control and power, whether as a New York developer or domineering reality television host, has always been vital to Mr. Trump. But in his first year in the White House, according to his friends, he found himself feeling tentative and anxious, intimidated by the role of president, a fact that he never openly admitted but that they could sense, people close to the president said.
This, after all, is someone for whom leaving the security of Trump Tower and moving to Washington and the White House was a daunting prospect. Even now, as he has grown more comfortable in the job, he rarely leaves the White House unless he is certain the environment will be friendly, such as at one of his own properties. Rallies are rarely scheduled in areas that could invite large protests.
But those days may be over:
For months, aides were mostly able to redirect a neophyte president with warnings about the consequences of his actions, and mostly control his public behavior.
Those most able to influence him were John F. Kelly, the retired Marine general turned chief of staff, and Gary D. Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and director of the National Economic Council. And few people had more ability to blunt the president’s potentially self-destructive impulses than Hope Hicks, his communications director, who has been one of his closest advisers since the earliest days of his 2016 campaign.
Some of Mr. Trump’s allies have said that Mr. Trump was trapped in a West Wing cage built by Mr. Kelly, and has finally broken loose.
Now add this:
The reality is more complicated, his closest aides say. They say Mr. Trump now feels he doesn’t need the expertise of Mr. Kelly, Mr. Cohn or Rex W. Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil executive he made secretary of state. If he once suspected they were smarter or better equipped to lead the country and protect his presidency, he doesn’t believe that now.
Two of those men are now on their way out. And Mr. Trump has an ambiguous relationship with the third, Mr. Kelly, whom he alternately assures that his job is secure and disparages to other people. Ms. Hicks is leaving the White House in the coming days, a departure that has caused concern among his allies about how he will cope without her in the long term.
Well, she’s as good as gone, and this vain man, who needs no one else’s stupid expertise, is blissfully alone now:
Outside the White House, there are few friends the president will listen to. Some of them warned him to back off his tariffs plan, telling him that he would undo what he had accomplished with the tax bill. Mr. Trump said he didn’t agree, and that was that.
But Mr. Trump’s moods have always been like storm clouds passing quickly over a desert island, and aides say that has not changed. Contrary to descriptions of a constantly fuming, beleaguered president, friends and advisers say Mr. Trump is more at ease than he has been in some time. What seems like unchecked chaos to almost everyone else is Mr. Trump feeling he is in his element.
“He seems more relaxed, believe it or not,” said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who spent several hours with the president during two St. Patrick’s Day events on Thursday.
On the other hand again:
Some worried aides are less sanguine. They view the weekend’s attacks on Mr. Mueller and the FBI as a particularly disturbing taste of what they believe could come. They say privately that Mr. Trump does not understand the job the way he believes he does, and that they fear he will become even less inclined to take advice.
As for Hope Hicks, the former teen fashion model who became his communications director, Olivia Nuzzi offers an almost book-length review was that was all about, including this detail:
What her office lacked in flair it made up for in proximity. While others were left wondering what the president was thinking, Hicks could often hear him shouting, even with her door closed. “Hope!” he’d scream. “Hopey!” “Hopester!” “Get in here!”
Many requests were mundane. “He doesn’t write anything down,” one source close to the White House told me. “He doesn’t type, he dictates. ‘Take this down, take this down: Trump: richest man on Earth.'” A second source who meets regularly with the president told me that Hicks acted almost as an embodiment of the faculties the Trump lacked – like memory. “He’ll be talking, and then right in the middle he’ll be like, ‘Hope, what was that … thing?'” When the name of a senator or congressman or journalist came up, Trump would prompt Hicks to provide a history of their interactions, asking, “Do we like him?”
“And she fucking remembers!” (Trump has said his own memory is “one of the greatest memories of all time.”) “She’s the only person he trusts,” the second source continued. “He doesn’t trust any men and never has. He doesn’t like men, you see. He has no male friends. I was just with one of them the other day, someone who’s described as one of his closest friends, and he doesn’t know him very well. But a small number of women, including his longtime assistant back in New York, he really listens to them – especially if he’s not banging them. Because, like a lot of men but more so, Trump really does compartmentalize the sex and the emotional part.”
But she had enough of that:
Over dinner in Bedminster in early August, she told Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump that she was unhappy. She’d thought that being in the White House would feel different than the campaign, but instead, surrounded by eccentrics, maniacs, divas, and guys from the Republican National Committee who seemed to think they were managing a Best Buy in Kenosha, it was somehow sicker there in the stillness of it all. She suggested removing herself from the belly of the psychodrama to work elsewhere in the administration. Sharing her frustrations, Jared and Ivanka engaged her idea with caution; they asked her to give General John Kelly, the new chief of staff, a chance to change the West Wing for the better.
But as time went on, it became clear that the sickness was a feature – that anyone who entered the building became a little sick themselves. And no matter how dead any of the eccentrics or maniacs or divas appeared to be, how far away from the president their status as fired or resigned or never-hired-in-the-first-place should have logically rendered them, nobody was ever truly gone. The people who were problems on the campaign or on the inside continued to be problems. The president’s taste for the other and the new was so established that the most driven among them knew that all they had to do was wait for an opening, or shrewdly create one – a weakened staffer, a particularly demoralizing news cycle – and they could worm their way back in. The madness engulfing the White House, in other words, was not just a matter of staff infighting or factional ideological rivalries, as it was often portrayed in the press, but also, in part, the result of manipulation from the fringes of Trumpworld. In early December, Hicks had seriously considered resigning again. When her apartment’s annual lease came up for renewal, she couldn’t bring herself to sign the papers. Instead, she signed a six-month lease at a significant cost-inflation.
But that wasn’t easy:
Over the weekend, she had sketched out in her notebook various courses of action and how they might play in the press. If she resigned immediately, the assumption would be that it was the result of the bad news that had defined the winter. There was the question of her legal exposure in the special-counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the election; already, she’d been interviewed by Robert Mueller and had appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “She’s never failed to impress me, and I’m not an easy guy to impress, historically. I’m not a cheerleader,” White House counsel Ty Cobb told me. “She’s sort of the last person on my list that I worry about.” Yet Hicks surfaced at pivotal moments that were of interest to investigators, and she was now being mentioned along with phrases like obstruction…
Yet, if she waited, she probably couldn’t avoid the impression that she was leaving because of a crisis, because there was always a crisis. If she’d resigned in August, they’d have said it was owed to Charlottesville. In December? Mueller or Roy Moore. January? Fire and Fury. From a public-relations perspective, there would never be a right moment to leave, but public relations as it’s traditionally understood had almost no relevance in this White House. By Sunday, her gut had decided for her what her head couldn’t.
When the president returned from the Capitol around noon, Hicks opened her office door, which clasps with a ring at its center, and walked about ten feet to her right, into the Oval Office. Before she could finish resigning, Trump interrupted her. He told her that he cared about her happiness, and that he understood her decision, and he would help her do anything she wanted to do in her life. He said he hoped she would go make a lot of money. He also said he hoped that she would come back at some point.
Then the president added something else: “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through.”
One day he may say that to the country – but probably not – and this woman was a bit naïve:
She didn’t overanalyze her decision to join the campaign, thinking of it almost the way you’d think about a semester studying abroad. “The feeling was, you know what? I’m just going to roll with it. Let’s see what happens until the election,” a source who has known her since before the campaign told me. “She wasn’t someone who was in it for the politics. She was in it because of the person, and the relationship with the family, and the experience.”
She got her experience, and now we get the same:
In terms of ambience, Washington is unlikely to feel much different without Hicks around; she wasn’t exactly Sally Quinn, hosting salons or hitting the embassy party circuit, and the Daily Mail still has Ivanka. But for the president, who gets out even less – he eats dinner at home, except for rare meals at the restaurant in the hotel bearing his name a few blocks away – Hicks’s decision seems like an amputation.
That’s just a bit of it – the rest is thousands and thousands of words of palace intrigue – fascinating but moot now. What is not moot, however, is that we have a president who will use the power of the federal government to ruin the life of any one citizen he chooses, and has just done that, and will publicly gloat about it, even if the whole thing does him no good, and even if that destroys this or that institution of government. He now is also convinced that he needs no one else’s stupid expertise. He may not understand the job the way he believes he does, but he has the job. That’s where we are.
Is that where we wanted to be?