President Donald Trump is lashing out in all directions as the fallout from his summit with Vladimir Putin becomes ever more toxic, the Russia investigation grinds on with no end in sight, and his frustration boils over on a lack of progress on North Korea.
The tensions reached a new level Sunday night when the President issued an all-caps threat against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had warned the US that war with Tehran would be the “mother of all wars.” Trump tweeted that Iran would “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” if its government again threatened the US, immediately ratcheting up tensions.
Exacerbating a sense of a White House under siege is the President’s full-out assault on his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who recorded a conversation with Trump about a payment to a former Playboy model who alleges she had an affair with the former real estate tycoon before he entered politics.
The controversies raging around the Oval Office underline how the President is increasingly taking control of his own defense and is willing to dictate high-risk political and legal strategies. But his incessant and often false attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation also give the impression of someone who fears its ultimate conclusions and is unsettled that his fate may be out of his hands.
The most surreal aspect of the latest lurches of this unparalleled presidency is the intensifying public debate over the once implausible idea that the President of the United States is compromised by a hostile foreign power.
But Trump is vehemently defending the summit in Helsinki, Finland, seven days ago as a great success, despite lingering mystery over what went on in his private one-on-one meeting with Putin and amid uproar over his invitation to the Russian leader for a second summit at the White House.
He is also facing increasing scrutiny about the results of another major summit: his encounter with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month, which ended with Trump declaring he had solved the isolated nation’s nuclear threat.
Since then, Pyongyang has returned to its characteristic strategy of diplomatic obfuscation and delay. The Washington Post reported Sunday that despite publicly talking up the success of the summit, Trump was fuming to aides in private that there had not been more dramatic steps forward in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported Sunday that according to a US official, the President had indeed registered frustration, but he was also convinced that North Korea’s continued suspension of nuclear and missile tests was a positive achievement.
No one can stop talking about the Putin summit
One week on from the Putin summit, no one can stop talking about it. And Trump’s defiance and failure to publicly rebuke the Russian leader in Finland over election interference is spurring unusual criticism from Republicans.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“It can be proven beyond any evidentiary burden that Russia is not our friend and they tried to attack us in 2016,” Gowdy said. “So the President either needs to rely on the people that he has chosen to advise him, or those advisers need to reevaluate whether or not they can serve in this administration. But the disconnect cannot continue. The evidence is overwhelming, and the President needs to say that and act like it.”
Still, on Sunday, Trump appeared to return to a previous position that Russia’s election interference was a story dreamed up by Democrats to excuse Hillary Clinton’s defeat – despite saying in a scripted statement last week that he held Putin personally responsible for it.
“So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!” Trump tweeted.
The intensifying saga of presidential misdirection, recriminations and accusations is a sure sign that the corrosive impact on American politics triggered by the Russian election intrigue is worsening. The odds of it ending in any manner that does not deepen political divides are lengthening by the day.
The question of why the President is acting in a way that often seems to further Russian goals – for example in his attacks on allied leaders and institutions like NATO – is driving growing concerns about his attitude toward Russia and explains why the controversy over the Helsinki summit is showing no signs of ebbing.
“I think there’s no ignoring the fact that for whatever reason, this President acts like he’s compromised,” Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC News’ “This Week.”
“There is simply no other way to explain why he would side with this Kremlin former KGB officer rather than his own intelligence agencies,” he said.
But Tom Bossert, the former White House homeland security adviser, said on the same show that suggestions that Trump was compromised by Russia were a “cheap shot.”
Contrasting Putin’s background as a former KGB agent who uses “penny-ante spy tactics” with Trump’s as a former businessman, Bossert said, “We spend our time trying to have productive meetings with foreign leaders. All the rest of this speculation and smoke is meant to undermine the President. It’s domestic partisan political concern mixed with some legitimate need to throw our intelligence forces against the prevention of spying and interfering in the United States.”
Whatever Trump’s motivation, there is also anxiety in Washington over his strategy of getting closer to Putin, even though most observers understand the necessity of communication between the world’s two top nuclear powers at a time of dangerously ruptured ties with Moscow.
“(Putin) is not interested in better relations with the United States,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” implicitly contradicting Trump’s rationale for engaging the Russian leader. “I think he walked away from that a long time ago. He’s interested in gaining advantage at our expense and to his benefit. And as long as we go in with a very clear understanding, we can engage him all we want, but not under any illusion.”
Mystification over Trump’s invitation to the Russian leader is compounded by the astounding prospect that the meeting with Putin will be in Washington in the fall, around the time of midterm elections, which US intelligence agencies say are already being targeted by Russia.
There is also uncertainty about the long-term fate of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats after his dumbfounded on-camera reaction at a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, on Thursday to the breaking news about the invitation to Putin.
Coats issued a remarkable statement on Saturday that is being interpreted as a bid to keep his job.
“My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the President,” Coats said.
Trump blasts Mueller and Cohen
While he remains consumed by his outreach to Putin, Trump is also fuming about Mueller’s investigation, apparently reasoning that he can use it to drum up partisan fury that will enthuse the base voters he needs to stave off a Democratic surge in the midterms.
“No Collusion, No Obstruction - but that doesn’t matter because the 13 Angry Democrats, who are only after Republicans and totally protecting Democrats, want this Witch Hunt to drag out to the November Election,” Trump tweeted on Saturday night. “Republicans better get smart fast and expose what they are doing!”
The President also accused the Justice Department and the FBI of misleading the courts, following the release of a previously classified warrant application to surveil former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Trump tweeted that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act documents “confirm with little doubt” that the Justice Department and FBI “misled the courts,” despite the fact that the document itself acted as legal justification for the FBI to obtain the 2016 warrant.
But Trump’s attacks on the special counsel pose their own questions.
To begin with, his prolonged assault on the investigation hardly suggests he has nothing to hide from Mueller. They also worsen the partisan imbroglio that plays directly into Putin’s desire to weaken American democracy.
While Trump’s ultra-sensitivity about Mueller looks suspicious, it could also be born out of an explosive reaction every time there is any question about the legitimacy of his election victory and his trademark insistence on hitting back harder anytime he feels he is unfairly attacked.
As if the Russia-related histrionics were not dramatic enough, there is also new intrigue about the case of Trump’s former lawyer Cohen, who is under federal investigation amid increasing concern among the President’s supporters that the attorney could turn on his former top client.
CNN reported on Friday that Trump’s lawyers waived attorney-client privilege on the President’s behalf regarding a secretly recorded conversation he had in September 2016 with Cohen in which they discussed a payment to ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, questioned whether the tape, first reported by The New York Times, supported the arguments of the President’s lawyers that there was no wrongdoing by the President.
But in a possible sign of concern that Cohen could chose to cooperate with prosecutors in a way that could deepen the President’s legal exposure, Trump lambasted Cohen in a tweet Saturday that mischaracterized the FBI’s raid on his home and office in April, which was executed on a court-approved warrant, amid a criminal investigation of Cohen by the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
“Inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning) - almost unheard of,” Trump wrote. “Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client - totally unheard of & perhaps illegal. The good news is that your favorite President did nothing wrong!”