Trump, Wrecker of Reputations

On Attorney General William Barr’s testimony and the coming constitutional crisis.

In the first year of the Trump Presidency, White House advisers often promised reporters that this would be the week when they would unveil Trump’s plans for a massive investment in American infrastructure. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had vowed to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding roads, bridges, and airports. He said that he would work with Democrats to do it. For a time, it seemed to be the only bipartisan project that might actually go somewhere. But, of course, Infrastructure Week never happened. There was always some distraction, some P.R. disaster that overwhelmed it—a chief of staff to be fired, an errant tweet upending foreign policy. Infrastructure Week lived on as an Internet meme, a Twitter hashtag, a joke; it became shorthand for the Administration’s inability to stay on message or organize itself to promote a legislative agenda it claimed to support.

Trump never fully gave up on the infrastructure idea, though, and this week he resurrected it in a rare meeting with congressional Democratic leaders, who emerged from the White House on Tuesday morning, smiling and apparently excited. The President, they explained, had decided to double the price tag of his proposal, from a trillion to two trillion dollars, because it sounded more impressive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom the President reportedly offered Tic Tacs at the meeting in a friendly gesture, praised his vision for a “big and bold” plan. The meeting, Senator Chuck Schumer added, had been a “very, very good start.”

But it was all just a form of Washington performance art. There are no Republican votes for such an expensive package, as the Democrats well knew, and there is no way that the President’s allies on Capitol Hill, nor his own penny-pinching White House chief of staff, would agree to such a budget-busting deal. Trump’s “extreme and aspirational” idea, as Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, put it, had Republicans “rolling their eyes,” Politico reported. The ranking member of the House committee that would have to approve any measure had offered a simple answer to the question of whether Trump’s idea could ever be passed. “No,” he said. It would not be Infrastructure Week, or even Infrastructure Day. The new era of bipartisan dealmaking was over before it began.

For his part, Barr, once again, acted more as the President’s defense lawyer than as his Attorney General. Taking a maximalist position on Presidential power, Barr argued that Trump would be well within his rights to shut down any investigation of himself if he believed it to be unfair. Surely, that statement will go down as one of the most extraordinary claims of executive authority since Richard Nixon said that “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Throughout his appearance, Barr continued to assert that Trump had been cleared of all wrongdoing by the Mueller investigation, while admitting, under questioning by Senator Kamala Harris, that he and his deputy had not actually looked at the underlying evidence of Presidential obstruction assembled by Mueller before determining that it was not sufficient to warrant charges. Barr also said that Trump directing his then White House counsel to fire the special counsel—a key incident in the Mueller report—was not a big deal because Trump was actually ordering that Mueller be replaced, which, Barr contended, is not the same thing as ordering him fired. His client, not surprisingly, was pleased. “A source familiar with Trump’s thinking said the President thought Barr was great and did an excellent job,” Axios reported.

Impeach Rosenstein? C’mon, Man

In its latest futile gesture, the House Freedom Caucus sets its sights on ousting the man overseeing Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

..their public relations assault is not actually about his refusing to turn over this or that document related to the Russia investigation. It’s not really even about the lawmakers’ loathing of the broader investigation, though certainly President Trump’s congressional lackeys — Mr. Meadows and Mr. Jordan most definitely included — are increasingly desperate to derail it.
.. For Freedom Caucus leaders, this impeachment resolution is about something at once much broader and far pettier: the need to make a huge, disruptive, polarizing political stink just as members head home for the long hot August recess. Especially with a critical midterm election coming, it never hurts to have some extra well-marbled meat to throw the voters. And it is unlikely a coincidence that, less than 24 hours after filing, Mr. Jordan — who, lest anyone forget, is multiply accused of overlooking rampant sexual abuse while an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University — formally announced his candidacy for House speaker.
Not to make Mr. Rosenstein feel any less special, but this is the fourth year in a row that Freedom Caucusers have pulled a summer-break stunt so nakedly self-serving that it would be comic if it weren’t so odious in its quest to erode public faith in government and in democratic institutions more broadly. Indeed, for all those wondering how the Republican Party reached the point where Donald Trump could swallow it whole with his furious everything-is-awful-and-everyone-is-out-to-get-you brand of demagogy, look no further than the nihilists in the Freedom Caucus.
.. In 2015, Mr. Meadows became an overnight political celebrity when, on the day before break, he filed a motion aimed at overthrowing the House speaker, John Boehner. That effort eventually bore fruit.

.. In 2016, Freedom Caucus members filed a pre-break motion to force a vote on the impeachment of the Internal Revenue Service commissionerJohn Koskinen. (Impeachment is all the rage with these guys.)
And last summer, they filed a discharge petition demanding a vote on a repeal of Obamacare.
.. it has only nine co-sponsors, and Republican leaders, including Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the oversight committee, have expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the effort.
.. Mr. Meadows didn’t even attempt to file a “privileged motion,” as he and his colleagues did against Mr. Koskinen two years ago, which would have forced a vote before members decamped on Thursday... the issue won’t get taken up until lawmakers return from break in September, if then. (That’s the beauty of pre-recess antics: They cannot fail before members get to spend several weeks touting them back home.)

There is vanishingly little chance that House leadership will let this toxic nonsense advance — Speaker Paul Ryan already has publicly smacked down the effort — and

zero chance that the motion could amass anywhere close to the two-thirds support required for the Senate to actually remove Mr. Rosenstein.

.. This stunt is in fact so ridiculous, so unfounded, so poisonous to the Republic that Attorney General Jeff Sessions felt compelled not only to publicly defend his deputy, but also to suggest that the lawmakers involved find a better use of their time.

.. Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general who was fired in January 2017 for refusing to defend President Trump’s travel ban, tweeted a warning about the long-term damage of “using the Department of Justice as a prop for political theater.”

.. It’s not that the Freedom Caucus members don’t recognize the damage they’re doing — or even that they don’t care. It is that delegitimizing government is at the heart of their movement.

.. Conflict and obstructionism have always been their purpose, fueled by their relentless message that

  • government is always the problem, that
  • all experts are idiots, that
  • cultural and coastal elites hate Real Americans and that
  • all of Washington is corrupt and broken beyond repair.

.. As has often been noted, Mr. Trump did not invent the apocalyptic message that he has used to dazzle the Republican base. He merely distilled it to its essence. But the base had been groomed for his arrival for years, in no small part by lawmakers like Mr. Meadows and Mr. Jordan, who have repeatedly proved eager to tear down democratic institutions in the service of their own political aims.

.. So while the Freedom Caucus’s pitiful effort to oust Mr. Rosenstein should not be taken seriously on practical grounds, it is a tragic reminder of the bleak path down which the Republican Party has been slouching in recent years. The rot was there long before Mr. Trump showed up to exploit it, and it is likely to remain long after he is gone.