WASHINGTON ― As scattershot and even crazy as it was, President Donald Trump’s first solo press conference Thursday had an organizing principle: to keep congressional Republicans from going rogue on the topic of Russia’s penetration of U.S. politics in general and Trump World in particular. The meandering weirdness may render it all useless, but at least he had a strategy.
Of all Trump’s challenges to D.C. rules, none is more unsettling and disorienting to the GOP power elite than this new idea that we should cozy up to Russia, looking the other way ― even cheering ― as Vladimir Putin mucks around in our elections.
Curmudgeon-in-chief John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, isn’t the only Republican on the Hill suspicious of what Trump and his team were and are up to with Russia. So is Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and perhaps a score of other GOP senators of various rank and stripe.
Any or all of these chairmen ― with the enthusiastic support of their Democratic committee members ― could stage lengthy and, from Trump’s point of view, painful hearings.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that exquisitely sensitive barometer of precisely what a hard-right message can and will sell, has expressed deep concern about Russian involvement.
The intelligence community is freaked out beyond measure ― the Russians, for the most part, have been enemies since the late 1940s, and with very good reason. But Trump perhaps can deal with them with a reign of terror internally, rooting out “leakers” and dissidents if he can find underlings willing to do it for him.
Vice Admiral Robert Harward told Trump after the press conference Thursday that he would not take the job of national security adviser, so he clearly wasn’t ready to be a willing underling.
But Congress is another matter, or so Trump has been advised by people who actually know the place. The House, with its oppressive rules, younger GOP members and large tea party Trumpian majority, is likely to remain docile and supportive for the most part.
But the Senate poses a risk: Many powerful GOP chairmen, older members who remember the Soviet Union, and former campaign foes, such a “Little Marco” Rubio of Florida, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz of Texas and even the seemingly inconsequential campaign asterisk but actually very smart Sen. Lindsey Graham, are extremely wary and worried.
Rubio in particular has made his bones in foreign policy by being a steadfast foe of Putin and Russia. It was no coincidence that the president chose Wednesday night to dine with the senator from Florida and his wife, ostensibly to discuss Cuba.
How to hem the GOP Senate in? Dinners aside, by threatening to unleash upon the senators his base of populist, conservative and alt-right hunting dogs.
And the best way to do that is to call a press conference and tell the assembled “mainstream” media to their face that they are a desperately unpopular mass of liars who peddle “fake news” because they hate him and everything he and his base stand for.
Which is precisely what Trump did Thursday.
Just to make sure his base got the message, his political team had pre-written an email fundraising appeal that painted the press as his demonic enemy. It went out to his mailing list at the very moment he was finishing his 77-minute anti-press tirade.
And just to button things up, Rush Limbaugh quickly concluded on the air that the press conference was one of the best and most successful in the modern history of the republic.
So does anyone care about what former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn did or did not do for or with the Russians? How about former campaign chief Paul Manafort or anyone else? What about the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson? What about the report that Flynn had lied to the FBI about what he had or hadn’t said to the Russian ambassador?
That’s all “fake news,” senators, and don’t you forget it. Who are you going to believe? The “fake press” or the Republican president of the United States, who won so many electoral votes? Focus on the leaks and the lying press, not what the president knew and when he knew it.
So, say what you want, Trump got that message ― and warning ― out.
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