Thursday was the kind of molasses-slow news day in Washington, reminiscent of the summers before air-conditioning when Congress and most of the Executive Branch fled the capital for sea breezes and temperate climes.
For the sake of historians chronicling the torpor of the Trump years, here are some of the things that happened on this forgettable Thursday:
- The attorney general went on Fox News to describe the president’s blistering attacks on him as “hurtful.” But Jeff Sessions pointedly added — referring to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — “An attorney general who doesn’t follow the law is not very effective in leading the Department of Justice.”
- Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, displayed his zest for communicating with a scabrously profane on-the-record tirade against White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and top strategist Steve Bannon. As a testament to Scaramucci’s power, Priebus was gone by Friday afternoon.
- Michael Surbaugh, the leader of the Boy Scouts, extended his sincere apologies” to anyone offended by the president’s speech Monday at a scout jamboree. Trump had bragged about his electoral victory, attacked “fake news” and told a bizarre, rambling story about 1950s real-estate titan William Levitt and his “very interesting life” of “yachts and sailing” in the south of France.
- Despite Trump’s tweet claiming to ban anyone transgender from serving in the military, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote in a memo that there would be “no modifications” to the current policies. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said that the only way that Trump could order such a policy change was to go through official channels. Twitter is not considered an official channel.
And, if you extend the this-day-in-history deadline into the wee hours of Friday morning, the Republican Senate drove a stake through the heart of GOP efforts to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. With drama that put “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Advise and Consent” to shame, the deciding vote was cast by John McCain, who will soon undergo treatment for brain cancer.
To summarize, the attorney general is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind; the new White House communications director comes across as an out-of-control thug; Trump has embarrassed the Boy Scouts; the Pentagon is ignoring the president’s tweets; and Trump and the Republicans suffered their biggest legislative defeat.
And that all happened before Trump Friday afternoon anointed John Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, as Priebus’ replacement as White House chief of staff.
Sorting out this head-spinning period will take time since everyone in the Pundit’s Guild is reeling from psychological overload. That said, it is safe to say that Donald Trump hasn’t yet gotten the hang of this presidency thing.
I suspect, after the shock wears off, many Senate Republicans will realize that the three brave GOP naysayers (McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) saved them from a political fate worse than defeat. A maladroit repeal of Obamacare (throwing the insurance markets into turmoil and raising deductibles and premiums) would haunt Republican senators facing tough reelections in 2020 and 2022.
House Republicans always faced a different timetable with vulnerable incumbents — especially those fearing primaries — convincing themselves that they had to make good on their promise to “repeal and replace” by 2018. But with the exception of fiscal conservative Jeff Flake and weathervane Dean Heller (who seemed to shift positions hourly on the health-care vote), no Senate Republican faces a tough race until 2020.
The Senate vote should permanently retire the fiction that Trump is a master negotiator who could bludgeon Congress into submission. After Trump’s tweets failed to sway Murkowski, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (presumably acting under orders) telephoned the Alaska senator threatening retaliation against her state if she voted “no.”
With these legislative talents (don’t forget the president’s attack on the House bill as “mean”), Trump is the kind of closer who couldn’t even deal with an open window.
The danger with Trump is that when he feels cornered, he lashes out in irrational directions. Going into a weekend — filled with many hours for brooding while watching Fox News — Trump could at any time provoke a constitutional crisis by firing the attorney general.
Sessions looks increasingly vulnerable since the axing of Priebus signals that this may be heads-will-roll time in Trump World.
Remember, on Tuesday (which, admittedly, feels like weeks ago in warp speed Trump World), the president told the Wall Street Journal that he is “very disappointed in Jeff Sessions” and that he is “looking at” removing him from the Cabinet.
In the Journal interview, Sessions didn’t even get credit for being the first senator to back Trump for president: “It’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.”
Presidents, of course, can fire Cabinet or transfer Cabinet members at will. But terminating Sessions (who shares Trump’s anti-immigrant, close-the-border zeal) would be part of an orchestrated plan to get rid of special counsel Robert Mueller, who appears to have frightened Trump with his interest in the First Family’s financial connections with Russia.
Amy Klobuchar, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, outlined the fears of both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill over removing Sessions.
“I believe that it would be a not so subtle way of firing Mueller,” she told me in a Wednesday interview. “So you fire him and then you fire [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein. Or you go directly to firing Mueller through a new acting attorney general. And that would create a crisis.”
It would be a reenactment of the Saturday Night Massacre when the Attorney General Eliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest over Richard Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Robert Bork, later famous for other reasons, ended up doing the dirty work.
It is questionable whether Trump recalls that 1973 precedent, since the 45th president was understandably busy at the time making his name in real estate and night clubs.
For those who do not remember Watergate seem doomed to repeat it.