Donald J. Trump is preparing his endgame. Besieged in every direction—by Robert Mueller’s multi-pronged special-counsel inquiry, by the FBI and the Department of Justice, by several congressional committees, and by a steady drumbeat of leaks—the White House is building an Alamo-like fortress to protect the president. In the battles ahead, Trump is relying on his innermost core of loyalists: his two sons, his daughter, his son-in-law, his lawyers, and a select group of White House staffers and former campaign advisers who’ve passed muster by pledging ultimate fealty to the commander in chief.
Everyone else is either being thrown overboard or getting the runaround, and many who were once considered Trump’s closest allies are now seen as likely to resign. These include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under relentless attack from the president, and Reince Priebus, the out-of-favor White House chief of staff. An obsequious GOP organization man, Priebus lost a key ally last week with the ouster of Sean Spicer, a former aide and spokesman for the RNC, who served just six rocky months as White House press secretary. Following Spicer’s exit, another White House communications staffer, Michael Short, was forced out. And there will be more to come.
“I’m going to fire everybody,” said Anthony Scaramucci, the Wall Street tycoon and political neophyte whose appointment as White House communications director prompted Spicer to quit and who is now rumored to be in the running to take over as White House chief of staff, replacing Priebus. “If I’ve got to get the thing down to me and Sarah Huckabee, then the leaking will stop,” he said.
A strong indication that Trump and Scaramucci are getting ready to lower the boom on Priebus came with Scaramucci’s overt warning, issued on Wednesday. “If Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that,” he said. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that Trump is engaged in detailed talks about ousting Sessions, despite vociferous objections from Sessions’s GOP allies and Breitbart News.
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At least one member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is worried that Trump’s attack on Sessions could intimidate others in the administration, including top intelligence officials such as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA director Mike Pompeo, and incoming FBI director Christopher Wray. “Watching the president slap the attorney general around has a pretty chilling effect on people who want to keep their job,” Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) told The Nation. “The conduct by the president is reprehensible, and his intent on thwarting the investigation is alarming and very challenging, from a constitutional perspective. The scary part of this is that there aren’t more people objecting.”
The circling of wagons follows the devastating revelation that three Trump insiders—Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort—held a secret tête-à-tête in June 2016 with several Russians who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. All three participants were summoned to Congress this week following that report, which was confirmed by Trump Jr. himself and seen by many as a smoking gun. Kushner was hauled in front of both the House and Senate intelligence committees, and Manafort and Don Jr. were the subject of an inquiry by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A pair of outside advisers and über-loyal followers of Trump, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, seem to be playing key roles in what’s likely to be a no-holds-barred defense of Trump. Back in May, the White House mulled the idea of creating a “war room” dedicated to an all-out defense of Trump amid charges of pre-election collusion with Russia and a swirling number of conflict-of-interest and malfeasance charges against Trump aides and allies. “Their mission: Respond, rebut and refute bad press and legal issues emanating from the special counsel probe led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller into Russian influence on the 2016 election,” reported Fox News.
Tapped to lead the effort was Steve Bannon, the ultra-nationalist former Breitbart executive and leader of the alt-right wing of the White House staff. “Steve Bannon is not a lawyer, but the chief White House strategist is poised to become the senior partner in a heavyweight firm of bareknuckle barristers at the center of President Trump’s counter-offensive against Russia collusion claims,” added Fox. Axios, reporting on the war-room plans, quoted a White House insider—possibly Bannon himself—saying, “We’re getting the street fighters ready to go.” According to CNN, Lewandowski and Bossie would be among those street fighters: “The internal White House war room may be aided by an outside rapid response operation, staffed by Trump loyalists who have remained outside the administration. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and ex-top campaign official David Bossie have been mentioned repeatedly in those conversations.”
Though the war-room plans were temporarily put on hold, it appears that they are being revved up now. When Trump traveled this week to Youngstown, Ohio, for a fire-breathing campaign rally, he took both Lewandowski and Bossie along for the ride, along with Sebastian Gorka, a key Bannon aide and former Breitbart national-security editor. Politico reported that the pair “have been spending more time in the White House in recent weeks.” And, according to CNN, last week Bannon dispatched both Bossie and Lewandowski to Capitol Hill to plunge into the last-ditch Senate effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Gorka, a Hungarian Islamophobe with ties to the country’s far right, has emerged as Trump’s go-to television and radio defender. “Did you see Gorka?” Trump said recently after one of Gorka’s pugnacious TV appearances “So great, I mean, really truly great!”
Russiagate may be nearing an endgame, especially if Mueller starts to unravel Trump’s finances. The people Trump wants in the trenches with him are not the opportunists who climbed aboard the bandwagon after it rolled to victory, but the few who were there with him when it all began. His tiny circle of trusted intimates starts and ends with his family and a few hardcore loyalists such as Bannon, Gorka, Bossie, Lewandowski, and Scaramucci.
In a now-famous interview with The New York Times, Trump delivered stinging remarks about three top Department of Justice officials, a clear sign that he considers their role as law-enforcement officials either questionable or illegitimate. He delivered a blistering rebuke of Sessions (“extremely unfair.… I would have picked somebody else”). He ridiculed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller inquiry (“Who is he?… What the hell is this all about?”). And he warned Mueller himself that the special counsel ought to steer clear of Trump and his family’s murky financial history, including real-estate deals related to Russian investors and contacts with Russian banks.
His statements amounted to a declaration of war against the Department of Justice, on top of his ongoing war against the media and his utter refusal to accept the judgment of the US intelligence community—including the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the FBI—that Russia’s GRU intelligence agency and President Putin himself ordered the hack-and-leak attack in 2016 and coordinated an information war against the American electoral system using social media, bots, and trolls to spread fake news.
But what are Trump’s options, other than tweeting furiously and building a White House war room? Most immediately, it appears that his first goal is to oust Sessions, though that is a high-risk move. With a steady stream of tweets and public remarks (“our beleaguered attorney general,” “very WEAK position” on “crimes” by Hillary Clinton). Of course, the president could fire the attorney general outright, as he did FBI director Jim Comey in May, but Scaramucci, Bannon, and other top White House officials have undoubtedly learned the lesson of the Comey firing, which led to harmful leaks, an exquisitely damaging Comey appearance at a congressional hearing, and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel. As with the Comey firing, an aggressive Sessions ouster could contribute to obstruction-of-justice charges against the president, something that Mueller is already looking into.
And then what? If Sessions quits, Trump has suggested a tough successor, with Rudy Giuliani a leading candidate according to various reports. But getting an attorney general ratified by a hostile Senate Judiciary Committee—the same committee seeking testimony from Don Jr. and Manafort this week—won’t be easy. It’s been suggested that Trump could make a recess appointment, which The Washington Post reported is being actively discussed in the White House. Such an appointment wouldn’t need Senate confirmation, which would allow Sessions’s replacement to serve until 2019, though that would be an explosively controversial move. Giuliani, Ted Cruz, or Chris Christie might decide to fire Mueller if appointed as attorney general, but that could also trigger impeachment hearings.
Even if Sessions stays on, Trump could order Rosenstein to get rid of Mueller, but that would have the same earthshaking consequences. And, as with the Watergate-era Saturday Night Massacre, it could lead to a cascading series of resignations of DOJ officials who refuse to carry out Trump’s order to fire Mueller.
Trump also has the power of the presidential pardon in his back pocket, which could protect current and former officials, as well as family members. But that course has a severe downside too. By pardoning witnesses and potential witnesses in the Russiagate inquiry, Trump adds to the long list of actions that could be construed as obstruction of justice. Once pardoned, those individuals would no longer be able to use the Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, so they’d have to testify about what they know. But if any of the folks under Mueller’s microscope are thinking about “flipping,” or getting immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony against higher-ups, the possibility of a pardon might keep them from doing so.
In the end, neither Mueller nor the House and Senate committees will be intimidated by Trump’s bluster. “The president’s expectation is that [our investigation] is going to be wrapped up in the next three weeks,” Representative Speier told The Nation. “It won’t be wrapped up in the next three months, in my view. There are a lot of witnesses that have yet to be called, including the most significant witnesses.” Among them, she says, are “the people that appear to have the potential relationships with Russia.”
On Tuesday, the House intelligence committee heard testimony from Jared Kushner concerning the June 2016 meeting with the Russian go-betweens. “The hearing went on for probably a hour longer than it was scheduled to, and he was happy to answer all the questions that the members had. He offered to come back, which is going to important in his case, because we have not seen his SF-86 [security clearance form] yet or his financial disclosure statement,” says Speier. “He wasn’t defensive or aggressive. But he didn’t recall a lot of things.”
And what did Kushner say? “I have to be careful here, because it was in closed session,” she says. “But it’s safe to say that what he was inclined to say is that he’s new to politics. He has used the line that he’s a business guy, and that politics is very new to him. But it’s very early in the process, and we do not have the benefit of documents. The majority was really pushing to have him testify, and I think the intention was to move it before we had access to the documents.”
Stay tuned. If you’re Donald Trump, you can fortify your Alamo. Of course, Trump doesn’t know much history, so someone should tell him that at the battle of the Alamo, the Mexicans won.