Some things are too painful to watch – Pittsburgh Pirate baseball games – most Tom Cruise movies – and now, presidential news conferences. Donald Trump is angry. He’s making less sense every day, and getting angrier as he senses that somehow no one “gets” what he’s saying. So he says it louder. Louder isn’t clearer. So he shouts it out, whatever it is, and sneers and pounds his fists on the podium. But there are still those blank stares, and some are embarrassed for him, and his staff, hidden offstage in the shadows, shuffles their feet uncomfortably. They’ll have to explain what he really meant, later. They’ll have to say this is a brilliant man, a stable genius, somehow. The fault is with the media. That’s it. They can always say that. Everyone knows what “covfefe” means. The press made a big deal out of nothing. They always do.
But those press conferences are really are painful now, and Kevin Drum looks at the latest one:
Donald Trump is just raving these days, both online and off, and a few minutes ago he practically melted down in public while the president of Finland stoically stared into his hands. Meanwhile, his secretary of state is flatly stonewalling Congress and – unless I’ve missed someone – not a single elected Republican is willing to even mildly criticize Trump, let alone support an impeachment inquiry.
Do the details even matter anymore? I suppose they do – or, more accurately, they might eventually. Maybe there’s some limit that even Fox News can’t quite spin away. Maybe.
Or maybe not:
In the meantime, just remember this: Joe Biden went to Ukraine in 2015 to demand that they crack down harder on corruption. That included investigations of Burisma, the energy company where his son sat on the board. In the real world, this is uncontroversial. Everybody agrees this is what happened. But in Foxland, Biden went to Ukraine to make sure they STOPPED investigating Burisma. It’s a jaw-dropping fantasy, but thanks to the conservative media machine it’s now gospel for a huge chunk of the country.
And that may be why the press conference was painful. Someone was in Fantasy Land. The other guy was grounded in western cultural history. Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains here:
In normal times, the last thing one might expect from a joint press conference with Donald Trump and the president of Finland is to hear the latter criticize the former, but that’s what happened Wednesday afternoon.
As is customary at such events, Trump, after reading his own statement, gave the visiting head of state, Sauli Niinistö, a few minutes to make some remarks. Niinistö used the occasion to jab at Trump’s hostility to Europe and, in more oblique terms, his possible threat to American democracy.
“Europe needs the U.S.,” Niinistö acknowledged, “but the U.S. also needs Europe.” He added, “We know the price of everything. We should also recognize the value of everything.”
The remark is play on a well-known line from Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Wyndemere’s Fan” in which Lord Darlington defines a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seemed pretty clear that the Finnish president was calling his American counterpart a cynic.
Trump didn’t get it. These two travel in different circles:
Niinistö then said that, during his time in Washington, he’d visited the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian. “You have a great democracy,” he said, then added, turning to Trump, “keep it going on.”
Yes, he was trolling Trump:
As an avid follower of political news, Niinistö must have known that the remark would be heard in the context of fears about the future of American democracy. When a reporter asked him if that was what he meant, if he had fears about that future, Niinistö didn’t deny it, saying only, “I am inspired what the American people have gained in these decades. So… keep it going.”
Finally, he also said that he’d urged Trump to keep open talks on arms control, including extending the New START nuclear treaty, which President Barack Obama signed with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010 and is set to expire in 2021. Trump is known to be no fan of that treaty or of any other deal negotiated by Obama…
For his part, Trump spent most of the press conference railing against the Democrats’ impeachment probe, which he once again denounced as a “hoax” amounting, possibly, to “treason.”
But of course that was nonsense:
His main argument is that Rep. Adam Schiff (or, as he calls him, “Shifty Schiff”), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, delivered a false rendering of Trump’s now-infamous phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At a committee hearing on Sept. 26, Schiff did paraphrase the conversation in a very crude, caricatured manner, portraying Trump’s subtle pressure campaign against Zelensky in much harsher terms. But this was clearly a caricature: No one should have mistaken it as a word-for-word reading… except that’s what Trump did, saying that Schiff “took that perfect conversation I had with the president, and he made up a total fabrication.” That “has to be a crime … treason.”
Ah, no, not really:
Even if Schiff had pretended his paraphrase was an exact quote, he wouldn’t have committed a crime, much less treason, which the Constitution defines very narrowly as consisting “only in levying war” against the United States or in “adhering” to its enemies, “giving them aid and comfort.”
Sauli Niinistö might have been rolling his eyes by then:
Trump further said that the media’s criticism of the conversation is based on Schiff’s speech about it, not on the “transcript” – actually, a very detailed memorandum describing and often quoting from it – released by the White House. In fact, the criticism is based entirely on that White House document, which is rare in the annals of American politics in that it showed the “smoking gun” – which often materializes in the final act of a scandal – in the opening scene.
Trump also said that the whistleblower’s complaint – which he described as “vicious” – differs from the transcript, when in fact the two are quite consistent. He also speculated that Schiff’s staff wrote the complaint before the story was made public, suggesting that the whole business – as he has said of the Mueller report – is a conspiracy hatched by those who are trying to reverse the 2016 election.
The president also said that he withheld military aid from Ukraine not to pressure their President Zelensky, but because he’s tired of being “the sucker country,” giving the country way more money than its neighbors in Europe. In fact, the European Union and its financial institutions have given Ukraine $16.4 billion since 2014, while the amount of U.S. aid held up by Trump amounted to just under $400 million.
Kaplan found the whole thing bizarre and unnerving:
Finally, Trump indulged in the conspiracy theory, pursued by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and, more recently, Attorney General William Barr, that the same cabal of corrupt Democrats and media ginned up the charges – about collusion with Russia – that put special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in motion.
In the day’s most rambling remarks, Trump said he would soon be “bringing a lot of litigation against a lot of people” for “what they did to my people,” who came to Washington “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” and wound up getting served subpoenas. He also lashed out against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, he said, “hands out subpoenas like they’re cookies.”
And he’ll sue someone for something, no one was sure who and for what, and then they’ll be sorry, whoever they are! The Washington Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa has more:
As the event turned to the unscripted question-and-answer session, Trump’s other personas emerged. He presented himself as a victim, a survivor, a “stable genius,” a ruthless counterpuncher and the most productive president in history.
Niinistö looked on, his face betraying his surprise and bewilderment at the dramatic arc of the Trump show. As Trump held court, the Finnish leader hardly got a word in. At one point, when Trump boasted of his wins before the World Trade Organization, Niinistö interjected: “I think the question is for me.”
It was, but that no longer mattered:
Trump grew most animated as he listed his grievances and described all the forces he believed are arrayed against him and his presidency.
He repeated words like “hoax” “scam” and “fraud” as casually as another president might say NATO or “shared values.”
“So the political storm, I’ve lived with it from the day I got elected,” he said. “I’m used to it. For me, it’s like putting on a suit in the morning.”
He complained that after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s extensive probe into Russian election meddling and potential obstruction of justice by the White House, he got only “three days of peace” before the threat of impeachment cast a cloud over the second half of his term.
“I’ve lived with this cloud now for almost three years,” he said.
The president lamented that former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) “would never give anybody a subpoena,” hesitating when Trump’s defenders wanted to use congressional powers to investigate Democrats and the FBI. By contrast, he said, Pelosi was a subpoena-approving machine.
Sauli Niinistö had given up and tuned out by then, because this had nothing to do with him any longer:
Trump also presented himself as the battle-scarred victor who was uniquely capable of fighting back against his perceived enemies and on behalf of his supporters.
In describing how he has survived the “greatest hoax” in history and a “fraudulent crime on the American people,” he cited conservative media figures.
“People have said to me, how does he handle it?” Trump said. “Rush Limbaugh said, ‘I don’t know of any man in America that could handle it.’ Sean Hannity said the same thing.”
This was painful, particularly for Republicans, as the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni explain here:
President Trump was watching television in the White House on Wednesday morning when cable news channels started airing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warning at a news conference that any attempts by the president to stonewall their impeachment investigation would be viewed as obstruction.
Mr. Trump did not wait for Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schiff to finish before responding. First he attacked Ms. Pelosi on Twitter, saying she was neglecting the work of Congress “and trying to win an election through impeachment.” Then he tweeted again, sharing a campaign video that accused Democrats of trying to undo the results of the 2016 election.
He continued those attacks later in the afternoon, both before and after a meeting with Sauli Niinistö, the president of Finland, and became increasingly angry as he went on.
But that is the actual problem here:
Mr. Trump has long believed that he is the best communicator in the White House, but as the presidential campaign picks up its pace and the prospect of his impeachment becomes more real, he seems to be its only empowered communicator, a one-man war room responding to developments almost hour by hour. And that is making many Republicans anxious.
They should be anxious:
For now, the White House has no organized response to impeachment, little guidance for surrogates to spread a consistent message even if it had developed one, and minimal coordination between the president’s legal advisers and his political ones. And West Wing aides are divided on everything from who is in charge to whether, after two years of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, impeachment even poses a serious political threat to the president.
“This is a very different animal than the Mueller investigation,” said Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader. “It’s a political question, not a legal one. They need to persuade Republicans in the House and the Senate of a bunch of really good arguments to have the party-wide insulation the president is going to prefer going into this fight.”
And there’s not much time for that now:
The White House has a narrow runway to adjust and tighten its response, with just over a week until the congressional recess ends. At that point, Republicans will return from their home districts and face questions about Mr. Trump’s tweets and condemnation of the whistle-blower – questions they might have difficulty answering.
“At this point, the president can hold his own,” Mr. Holmes added. “But I think they should be concerned with how Republicans handle it when they get back and for that, it probably does take a little bit of structure.”
Expect no structure, because there’s Rudy:
For weeks, the most visible defender of the president has been Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who is himself a central figure in the allegations that Mr. Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to find dirt on Democrats, leading several of the president’s advisers to warn that Mr. Giuliani’s freelance television appearances do him more harm than good.
But Mr. Trump has told them that he is pleased with the performances, and spent part of Saturday giving Mr. Giuliani talking points for the Sunday show circuit.
There’s no help there, or here:
Others have urged the president to tone down his language, including his repeated use of the word “treason.” But Mr. Trump, who has frequently abandoned norms and paid little in terms of personal political consequences for doing so, has not changed his behavior. That has led some advisers, like Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to settle into a hands-off approach. Mr. Mulvaney told associates he spent part of Sunday on a golf course outside Washington.
What’s left is Mr. Trump acting alone, and poised to live-tweet his own impeachment, complete with all-caps obscenities, alarming accusations of treason and warnings that impeachment is really a “coup.”
And Trump is fine with that, about half the time:
Behind the scenes, Mr. Trump has seesawed from projecting confidence that there is a political benefit from the impeachment fight to lashing out at aides, blaming them for the fact that he is entangled by it in the first place.
But he should blame Rudy for that:
The State Department inspector general provided Congress on Wednesday with documents that included materials President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani had given to the department earlier this year containing unproven claims about Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The documents, which were obtained by CNN, include claims against the Bidens that formed the basis of President Donald Trump’s accusations in his July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as accusations against former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled earlier this year and whom Trump also criticized in the call. In addition, the packet contains internal State Department emails from officials discussing articles critical of Yovanovitch, calling some of it a “fake narrative.”
The packet contained press clippings and print-outs from conspiracy websites, and rumors about rumors, and one or two notes from carrier diplomats and regional experts that a lot this was nonsense, perhaps to prove there was a “deep state” plot to cover up all this stuff. That was Rudy:
Giuliani said that in late March, he had “routed” what he called an “outline” of allegations against Biden, as well as Yovanovitch, to Pompeo’s office. He said he also had sent details of his interviews from earlier in the year with the incumbent and former top prosecutors in Ukraine, who helped provide him with the information in his outline.
Giuliani said he received a phone call shortly thereafter from Pompeo, who told Giuliani he would be referring the documents for investigation.
“They told me they were going to investigate it,” Giuliani told CNN.
Other presidents have had the CIA and the NSA and the FBI but Trump has Rudy, and Josh Marshall was amazed:
I was in the midst of writing out a post explaining how there was a lot of circumstantial evidence that that packet of pro-Trump conspiracy theories the State Department Inspector General brought up to the Hill was actually Rudy Giuliani’s work product: the packet of information he’d assembled in his trips abroad. Rudy likely piped it into the State Department. It got circulated through the Department by State appointees (this part we know). The IG had had it since May. But when he heard the events of the last week, especially Pompeo going on the warpath, the IG decided he wanted to get it out of his hands and into the hands of Congress as soon as possible.
Well, I’m robbed of my genius reconstruction of the evidence! Because now Rudy has admitted that, yeah, it’s his stuff…
It’s a mix of memos, planted newspaper articles and summaries of the interviews Giuliani conducted in Ukraine.
Helpfully (to Congress) Giuliani says Pompeo was receptive to the documents and said he’d make sure they were investigated.
And this is where all this nonsense took hold:
The key point here is that the documents not only push the anti-Biden conspiracy theories. They also include attacks on the then-US Ambassador to Ukraine, as well as claims of a Mueller conspiracy against Trump, framing of the Russia, etc. etc. So they apparently got Pompeo to turn against the US Ambassador to Ukraine, who was subsequently dismissed…
Needless to say, it’s quite clear that Pompeo is deeply implicated in these abuses of power. Meanwhile Rudy Giuliani is happy to provide more evidence of Pompeo’s involvement. Once Pompeo received them, they were circulated within the State Department. It doesn’t say specifically that Pompeo circulated them. But that seems consistent with all the other information we’ve learned.
It seems pretty clear why Inspector General Linick thought this was an urgent matter.
In short, both Trump and Pompeo were involved in trying to force the Ukrainians into finding a way to destroy Joe Biden so Trump wouldn’t have to run against him.
And now it’s Mike Pence too:
President Trump repeatedly involved Vice President Pence in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine at a time when the president was using other channels to solicit information that he hoped would be damaging to a Democratic rival, current and former U.S. officials said.
Trump instructed Pence not to attend the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May, an event White House officials had pushed to put on the vice president’s calendar, when Ukraine’s new leader was seeking recognition and support from Washington, the officials said.
Months later, the president used Pence to tell Zelensky that U.S. aid was still being withheld while demanding more aggressive action on corruption, officials said. At that time – following Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky – the Ukrainians probably understood action on corruption to include the investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Officials close to Pence insist that he was unaware of Trump’s efforts to press Zelensky for damaging information about Biden and his son, who had served on the board of an obscure Ukrainian gas company, when his father was overseeing U.S. policy on Ukraine.
Mike Pence knows nothing! His staff says so, but Trump’s staff says the Pence knew everything, so the two staffs fought it out, but what happened did happen:
In his meeting with Zelensky, Pence conveyed the news that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Ukraine was not going to be released amid concerns about the country’s lagging efforts to combat corruption. He also emphasized Trump’s frustration that he thought the European Union was not doing a sufficient job in helping to provide aid. A participant in the meeting said Zelensky was “crestfallen” by the news, though a second participant described the meeting as “cordial” and Zelensky as understanding of U.S. concerns.
At that point, Ukraine’s president had already spoken to Trump and was familiar with the president’s demands. Pence did not mention Biden or the dormant probe of Burisma, the company for which his son had served as a board member. But former officials said that Pence’s emphasis on corruption probably would have been interpreted by Zelensky as “code” for that issue, whether the vice president intended it or not.
A top Pence staffer rejected the charge…
It’s too late for that. If Trump is going down, others will go down with him. He’s not going down alone.
This will be painful to watch, but this might be the only game in town, as Charles Blow explains here:
The presidency has many powers, awesome powers, but Congress also has powers, and impeachment is one of them. Trump is likely to become only the third president to be impeached and the first to be impeached over his dealings with a foreign government, one of the things the framers of the Constitution feared most.
This is outrageous to Trump, a man who has patterned his entire presidency as a rebuke to and competition with his predecessor, Barack Obama. Not only will Trump not get a Nobel Peace Prize, he’ll get an American badge of dishonor. A black president of decency will trounce the president of white supremacy.
This fact alone is no doubt pushing Trump to the verge of explosion.
He will do anything to avoid this. But this may now be all out of his hands.
There will be an explosion. And then there will be a bloody mess to clean up. It’s all painful now.