Emboldened Trump Brushes Off Flynn Plea and Goes on Offense
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump emerged newly emboldened from one of the most tumultuous weeks of his presidency, reveling in the prospect of his first major legislative victory while brushing off a federal probe that’s closing in on key members of his inner circle.
At a fund raiser in New York on Saturday, he told Republican donors that rising markets primed by anticipation of a tax overhaul meant he’ll be “unbeatable” in his bid for re-election. And rather than shrink from news that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is now cooperating with an investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian government, the president went on the offensive, publicly attacking the Justice Department and the FBI, whose reputation he declared to be “in tatters,” and news media.
Trump seized on an erroneous report by ABC News journalist Brian Ross who incorrectly reported Flynn was prepared to testify that Trump had instructed him to contact the Kremlin as a candidate, rather than as president-elect to broadly dismiss reports on the Russia matter as a “witch hunt” and “fake news.” He said in a tweet that investors should sue Ross over the report, which spooked markets on Friday.
The president also highlighted news that Mueller had removed Peter Strzok, one of the FBI’s top Russian counterintelligence experts, from his team after revelations Strzok sent text messages making fun of Trump during the presidential campaign. Strzok was also involved in the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The Justice Department ultimately opted against bringing charges against the former Secretary of State.
When asked by reporters on Monday about the Flynn plea, Trump deflected the question by instead attacking his 2016 political rival.
“Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI and nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and they destroyed his life. I think it’s a shame,” Trump said.
Then-FBI Director James Comey said in July 2016 testimony to the House Oversight Committee on his decision not to prosecute Clinton for her use of personal emails as secretary of state, "We have no basis to conclude that she lied to the FBI."
Trump offered no proof for his assertion that Clinton did lie to FBI investigators.
The question now is whether the president’s bravado will pay broader dividends -- or if his penchant for controversy and counter-punching will jeopardize a rare moment of political momentum. Of the 18 tweets Trump issued from his @realDonaldTrump account over the weekend, one in particular stood out: an apparent acknowledgment that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he fired him in February, information the White House had not previously disclosed.
The best-case scenario for the White House is that Trump’s weekend outburst on social media at his perceived enemies obfuscates the gravity of the threat posed by Flynn while rallying his supporters.
The Ross and Strzok incidents provide Trump with ammunition to discredit both the federal investigation into his campaign and media coverage of the probe. Perceptions that the work of the FBI could be politically motivated and that media accounts are unreliable could help the White House as it seeks to weather an investigation that appears to be inching closer to the president, his family, and top advisers still serving at the White House.
And while much of the focus over the weekend was on the Mueller investigation, Trump sent signals that he hopes to parlay his legislative success on tax reform into momentum on other priorities.
His remarks at the donor lunch in New York seemed aimed squarely at Republican lawmakers who’ve proven unreliable allies for his earliest legislative efforts: a booming stock market and well-bankrolled Republican National Committee means the GOP should be favored in upcoming elections, Trump said. He even offered “one of the great campaign lines” to Republicans in need of a slogan: “How is your 401(k) doing?”
“Unless they have somebody that we don’t know about, right now we’re unbeatable,” he said.
Convincing Republicans to hold ranks during the tax debate was decisive in finally getting one of the president’s priorities through the Senate, and maintaining that comity will be crucial as the White House seeks passage of the final version of the bill.
But the president has other pressing concerns on Capitol Hill. Congressional authority for the government to spend money expires on Friday, risking a partial shutdown. Democrats are threatening to withhold support for a long-term spending plan unless it also addresses the fate of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Trump disbanded a program offering them deportation protection in September, and the White House has said it wants a dramatic overhaul of the immigration system as well as additional funding for border security in exchange for restoring it.
Toward that end, Trump and his advisers also spent portions of the weekend arguing that the decision by a San Francisco jury to acquit a man in the country illegally of murder and manslaughter charges in the 2005 death of a 32-year-old woman in San Francisco crystallized the need to enact his immigration agenda. Trump frequently highlighted the case on the campaign trail as he called for the construction of a border wall, and administration allies made clear they hoped the verdict would provide a boost in the funding fight.
“Such a total miscarriage of Justice in San Francisco,” Trump tweeted.
Trump often dials up the aggressiveness of his tweets in the face of bad news, but even those looking at the president’s weekend with the rosiest of glasses would have to acknowledge that Trump may also have inflicted some serious harm.
The president appeared to alienate some lawmakers who had backed his tax plan after telling reporters that the corporate tax rate could be as high as 22 percent in the final bill.
The White House had previously described a 20 percent rate as a “red line,” and opposed an effort by Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, both Republicans who ultimately voted for the Senate bill, to raise the corporate rate to pay for an extension of the child-tax credit for low income families.
“For days heard that anything more than 20% corp rate would be anti-growth & catastrophic. Less than 12 hours later 22% is now an option?” Rubio tweeted.
Most damning was the tweet in which Trump claimed to have fired Flynn “because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” The concession that Trump knew Flynn lied to federal investigators prompted immediate questions: why then did he urge Comey to lay off an investigation into Flynn, according to the former FBI director’s sworn testimony?
John Dowd, the president’s personal lawyer, later said he was the one who drafted the tweet. And Trump accused Comey of lying about the incident, saying in a tweet at 6:15 a.m. New York time on Sunday that “I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn.”
But the episode will likely raise new, tough questions for the White House from reporters, congressional investigators, and Mueller’s team.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during an interview with “Meet the Press” on Sunday that she saw the president’s frenzied weekend as a sign of the president’s worry that he himself may face criminal charges.
“I see it in the hyper-frenetic attitude of the White House -- the comments every day, the continual tweets,” she said.
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