By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press on May 19, 2017.
WASHINGTON – The president’s plane had barely taken off for his first foreign trip when two political storms slammed into it Friday: One report in the New York Times, and another in the Washington Post suggested severe turbulence ahead for Donald Trump.
Air Force One had just left for the Middle East when trouble struck.
At 3 p.m. the Times tweeted out its latest scoop: the president told the Russians in an Oval Office meeting that former FBI director James Comey was a “nut job,” that he had been under pressure over the Russia affair, and that firing Comey eased the pressure.
A Democratic member of Congress, Ted Lieu, drew an instant conclusion about the implications, tweeting: “This. Is. Obstruction. Of. Justice.”
Spokesman Sean Spicer disputed not the facts of the report, but the interpretation, telling the Times that Trump was talking not about the criminal investigation, but about post-election scrutiny that was making it hard for him to work with Russia.
The bad news didn’t end there.
A couple of minutes after that story struck, the Washington Post followed up with a potentially even more troubling one: It said the law-enforcement investigation into possible co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign had identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government.
“The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to (sources),” said the Post report, which added that the FBI declined to comment.
Equally intriguing was the question of where these reports came from. The Times cited a U.S. official reading from a document summarizing Trump’s meeting last week with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador.
Trump is on a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, his first foreign trip as president. Most senior White House staff are travelling with him, leaving few senior officials back in Washington to defend the president.
The content of the leaked details in those reports, not to mention their simultaneous timing at a particularly vulnerable moment for the president, make it clear Trump has some enemies inside the U.S. government.
One hot topic of conversation in Washington these days is whether conservatives in town – weary of the Trump-related drama and longing for the comparative normalcy of a Mike Pence presidency – are preparing to abet his downfall.
Already, since the Comey firing, congressional committees controlled by the GOP have become more aggressive in seeking documents and witnesses, planting potential seeds for trouble to grow later.
“I think most of them are ready to flip,” one Democratic congressional staffer said of his Republican colleagues this week. A Republican staffer concurred: “The tide seems to be changing in town, right?”
Both made the point that the slightest whiff of obstruction of justice, which grew more pungent with Comey’s firing and in remarks thereafter, is more serious than talk of previous Trump controversies related to collusion and conflicts of interest.
Another trouble spot for Trump has to do with finances.
Congressional committees have said they want to know more about the president’s businesses, and have requested documents from a Treasury Department’s money-laundering unit that fined a Trump casino $10 million in 2015 for persistent, wilful, and long-term violations of protocols designed to keep criminal cash from being laundered through casinos.
Additionally, a special counsel was appointed this week – the well-regarded former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller.
Nonetheless, Trump retains a powerful retinue of defenders.
Outside Washington, he has sky-high approval ratings – among Republican voters. He has also had the full-throated backing of conservative media. One example of that was the Breitbart News headline published instantly after the Times scoop Friday.
“New York Times collaborates with deep state to smear Trump again,” read the headline.
The support of the conservative base offers Trump a bit of a firewall, as congressional Republicans feel political pressure not to go too hard on the president. It’s unlikely too many, if any at all, would join the call from the few Democrats who have already demanded impeachment.
Democratic leaders themselves are trying to tamp down the impeachment talk for now. They argue that the priority should be to investigate the case, build one if there is one, and revisit the matter when appropriate.
“We’re going to learn some things in the process,” said prominent Democratic lawmaker Elijah Cummings.
“Will it lead to impeachment? I don’t know.”
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