I didn’t watch in real time—I’m not a masochist. But after I saw the way social media reacted to Donald Trump’s two-hour CPAC rant on Saturday afternoon, I realized I had to at least listen, for a while. It’s my job. So I played it while I made dinner Sunday night. (OK, I guess I am a masochist.)
In a normal world, after Trump’s CPAC breakdown, Republicans and Democrats would be allies in trying to figure out, first, whether the president is in full control of his faculties or whether he’s had some kind of medical or psychological incident that’s made him unfit to be president. He raged and he cursed and he broke into a sweat. He mixed things up and he made things up. Even the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale, who’s made a career out of covering Trump speeches and exposing his lies, pronounced it an “extraordinarily bizarre” speech. It was also his longest—39 minutes longer than any other. He appeared to hump an American flag as he left the stage.
Trump’s unpresidential use of the word “bullshit”—the crowd roared—got a lot of attention, although few media people cared as much about the context. It was part of his ranting about Democrats’ focus on his Russia connections, about which he declared, “These people are sick.” In particular, he mocked their focus on the press conference in July 2016 when he urged Russia to find and release Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
For the record, he said then: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That’ll be next.”
At CPAC, Trump recast his plea to Russia as just having fun. “If you tell a joke, if you’re sarcastic, if you’re having fun with the audience, if you’re on live television with millions of people and 25,000 people in an arena, and if you say something like ‘Russia, please if you can get us Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Please. Russia. Please. Please get us the e-mails. Please.’ So everybody’s having a good time, I’m laughing, we’re all having fun.”
But that’s not at all how it happened. Trump was not at a rally; he was at a press conference when he made his claim. Nobody was laughing or having fun; in fact, when NBC’s Katy Tur followed up, appropriately shocked that Trump was appealing to a foreign power to undermine Clinton, Trump remained quite serious.
“Do you have any pause about asking a foreign government—Russia, China, anybody—to interfere, to hack into the system of anybody’s in this country…?” Tur asked Trump. “Well, they probably have them. I’d like to have them released,” he said. “No, it gives me no pause. If they have them, they have them.” No laughter, no sarcasm, no applause. In hindsight, given Michael Cohen’s testimony last week and other news that’s emerged, Trump seemed to be admitting, back in July 2016, that he had information that led him to believe Russia “probably” had Clinton e-mails.
Trump may have come unglued at CPAC because his administration is coming unglued around him. Last week we had not only the damning Michael Cohen testimony but also the New York Times revelation that Trump overruled his security team to grant a full security clearance to son-in-law Jared Kushner. Things got worse for the president on Sunday, when House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “It’s very clear that the president obstructed justice.” (The House Judiciary Committee is the committee that would initiate impeachment proceedings, if it came to that, by the way.) Nadler cited Trump’s repeated attacks on Robert Mueller, his firing of James Comey and his big-footing intelligence officials to get Kushner security clearance. That was before we had Jane Mayer’s report on Monday that Trump pressured Gary Cohn, then director of the National Economic Council, to have the Justice Department block the AT&T/Time Warner merger.
Still, Nadler was cautious, saying “impeachment is a long way down the road,” adding, “We don’t have the facts yet, but we’re going to initiate proper investigations.” “Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen.” But Nadler said his committee planned to subpoena at least 60 individuals connected to Trump, his business and his administration, seeking documents and testimony to “begin investigations to present the case to the American people about obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power.”
All the president’s CPAC bluster can’t change that. Democrats in the House are serious about oversight, at long last. Whatever Trump wants to claim, that’s not “bullshit.”