Tracking Trump: goodbye to the Mooch as leaked transcripts wreak havoc
Last week was widely labelled Donald Trump’s worst week in office, with the departure of chief of staff Reince Priebus, the president’s public feud with attorney general Jeff Sessions, the failure of congressional Republicans to repeal Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, and a bipartisan vote in favour of tough sanctions against Russia that Trump opposed. But this one was scarcely better for the president, as Russian revelations continued apace and his brand new communications secretary was unceremoniously booted out of the White House after just 10 days.
Trump resumed using his bully pulpit – Twitter – to put pressure on Senate Republicans over healthcare at the weekend, and continued to flail at China over its unwillingness to rein in North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear programme. That was illustrated most recently by an ICBM test on Friday which, by some calculations, suggested the North Koreans could reach New York. Meanwhile, senior White House members of staff began saying that the new chief of staff General John Kelly would instill some military rigour into the administration. “The president wants a little bit more discipline, a little more structure in there,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, assured CNN. For her part, adviser Kellyanne Conway took another opportunity to downplay the ongoing inquiries into the Trump campaign’s possible involvement in Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election. “There’s no there there,” she said. “We were promised the next Watergate and we don’t even have water polo, we don’t have a watermelon.”
The former White House ethics chief Walter Shaub told the Guardian that Trump’s conflicts of interest put the country at risk of being seen as a “kleptocracy”. Meanwhile Russia ordered the US to reduce its diplomatic presence by hundreds of positions, after Congress passed a new sanctions bill, suggesting that Russian hopes that Trump would usher in a new era of cooperation had been dashed, at least for now. All this was rather overshadowed later that afternoon, when Kelly – in a shock demonstration of his new power – fired communications director and media magnet Anthony Scaramucci, who had been on the job for just over a week.
The Mooch’s foul-mouthed comments about colleagues Reince Preibus and Steve Bannon had apparently been the catalyst. “No WH chaos!” Trump had tweeted that morning; he closed the afternoon seeming even more disengaged from reality, proclaiming it: “A great day at the White House!” The great day got worse that night, when the Washington Post reported that Trump had “personally dictated” a statement from his son Donald Trump Jr about his controversial 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer that was later found to be misleading at best.
The White House acknowledged that Trump Sr had been involved in writing his son’s statement, and, continuing a fine tradition among Trump staffers of making statements that are easily disproved, White House spokeswoman Sarah Hucakbee Sanders claimed: “The statement that Don Jr issued is true. There’s no inaccuracy in the statement.” The original statement said that he and the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children”. In fact, as emails released later by Donald Jr showed clearly, the meeting had been set up so that Veselnitskaya could pass on “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia”, and only after discussing this had the adoption issue been raised. Former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter told the Guardian Trump Sr may have obstructed justice in helping draft the statement.
Elsewhere, ex-generals attacked Trump’s proposed ban on transgender troops, and the acting head of the DEA criticised the president for his comments appearing to condone police brutality. In departed communications staff news, Scaramucci was tricked by a prankster into making some ill-advised comments to someone he thought was Preibus (“Read Shakespeare,” he said – not bad advice for those navigating the halls of power), and Sean Spicer admitted that he had been given advance notice about a sensational but later retracted Fox News story on the murder of Democratic aide Seth Rich, whose death has spawned numerous rightwing conspiracy theories. In an unusual move, Politico published the transcript of a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Trump, in which the president wondered aloud about the implications of an independent Scotland: “What would they do with the British Open if they ever got out? They’d no longer have the British Open.”
Trump finally signed the Russian sanctions bill, while calling it “seriously flawed” and “clearly unconstitutional” and insisting: “I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.” The Russian prime minister’s response was scathing, writing on Facebook: “The US establishment fully outwitted Trump; the president is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill.” At the White House, aide Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s original failed travel ban, got into an angry exchange with reporters about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty following new proposals to cut the total number of immigrants admitted to the US by half over a decade and prioritize those who can speak English or are well educated. And the leaders of Mexico and the Boy Scouts both refuted Trump’s claims in the WSJ interview that they had called the president to praise him.
Two more transcripts spelled more trouble for Trump on Thursday, when the Washington Post published the details of his January calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia in full. The Mexican call was probably the most damaging, revealing that Trump had an elastic attitude to his key campaign promise to make Mexico pay for a wall on the border and was primarily concerned that Enrique Peña Nieto stop publicly refusing to do so. The funding “will work out in the formula somehow”, the president said. “It will come out in the wash, and that is OK.”
The row with Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, demonstrated the US president’s fury and confusion at having to stick to an Obama-era deal to consider taking 1,250-2,000 refugees mostly from Muslim countries in exchange for a number from central America. “I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad,” Trump said, adding later: “Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.” It also emerged that special counsel Robert Mueller had impaneled a grand jury to investigate the watermelon of Russia’s interference in the US presidential election, as senators from both parties pushed legislation to shield him from being fired by the president. A grand jury, which sits in secret, decides whether a case is strong enough to push ahead with an indictment, and has the power to subpoena witnesses and demand the production of documents. That night, Trump addressed a crowd in West Virginia, presenting the investigation as a way to delegitimise his 2016 victory: “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story.”
Key Trump aide Kellyanne Conway appeared to confirm the existence of the grand jury on Friday, noting: “Grand jury investigations are meant to remain secret. So someone leaked it. It could been anybody in the grand jury. It could be one of the lawyers … But what really should concern everyone are these leaks that imperil national security.” Attorney general Jeff Sessions agreed, announcing he would devote new FBI resources to cracking down on the leaks that have bedeviled the administration since January, also threatening to change its approach to subpoenaing journalists. Against this background, who could blame Trump for heading out for a 17-day break to his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey? Another great week in the White House!