Roller coaster Thursday for President Trump on Russia, Cohen, Cabinet

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In a turbulent Thursday, President Donald Trump raised new questions about how he might deal with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, admitted that Michael Cohen was his lawyer in legal dealings with porn star Stormy Daniels, watched as his Cabinet saw a day of success, verbal scrapes, and setbacks, and then saw a Senate panel approve a bill designed to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

A day after his personal lawyer notified a federal court that he would exercise his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in a lawsuit brought by Daniels, the President did an interview by telephone on his favorite morning television program, “Fox and Friends” – but that only created more news.

Instead of just being a Fox News bullhorn for his views on a number of different subjects – Mr. Trump in the interview instead stirred new interest in how he will treat the Russia probe, and the legal questions surrounding a $130,000 pre-election payment in 2016 to an adult film star.

Even for reporters – it was a busy day. Let’s run down some of the headlines.

1. Trump raises personal intervention in Russia probe. In an interview on his favorite morning television program, “Fox and Friends,” the President vented more of his frustration about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and seemed to raise the possibility that he might take some action in the future. “You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI, it’s a disgrace,” the President said. “And our Justice Department – which I try and stay away from – but at some point, I won’t,” Mr. Trump said, making a statement which was interpreted by some as a threat to intervene in the case.

2. From Fox News to court documents in two hours. Not only were fans of the President watching as he joined “Fox and Friends” by telephone from the White House, but federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York were listening, too. And two hours later, comments by the President were already in a footnote of a new submission to a federal judge who is dealing with evidence seized in an FBI raid on the President’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen. While Cohen had said that many of the documents and computer records seized by the feds were involved in legal work that he did for the President, radio host Sean Hannity, and one other person, Mr. Trump had a different view, saying Cohen does a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work.

3. Trump interview opens new questions on Cohen, Stormy Daniels. As the story has slowly played out over a $130,000 payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels – what she said was hush money from President Trump before the 2016 elections – Mr. Trump has said little about it, telling reporters aboard Air Force One in recent weeks that he knew nothing about the payment made to Daniels by Michael Cohen. But on “Fox and Friends,” the answer was different, as Mr. Trump clearly acknowledged that he was a party to the legal settlement. “He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me,” the President said. “From what I see, he did nothing wrong.” That prompted a Fox News host to ask, “Then why is he taking the Fifth?”

4. White House doctor, Trump’s VA nominee, withdraws. Even before getting on the phone with “Fox and Friends,” there was already big news for the White House, as the day began with what many on Capitol Hill had been expecting, with White House physician Ronny Jackson announcing that he would drop his bid to be Veterans Secretary, amid growing reports of embarrassing personal stories. “He’s a great man, and he got treated very, very unfairly,” President Donald Trump told reporters, as he met with children of White House reporters just outside the Oval Office. For the President, the episode seemed to be an unforced political error, as he’s made veterans issues one of his main causes since entering office.

5. Senators demand better vetting on next VA nominee. As the VA search resumed, members of both parties made clear they want the White House to look for someone with more experience, worried that the President’s first pick was done on a whim. “The best possible person that we can get,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, when asked who the President should select. “I want to find the best person available that we can get,” Isakson told reporters. “The President put a guy out there who was not qualified,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). “This was so bungled.” “I feel like they put the President in a bit of a difficult situation,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).  “Maybe the vetting could have been done better.”  For now, the VA will keep its acting director, as the President must find a new nominee.  He fired the last VA Secretary, David Shulkin, in late March.

6. Pompeo wins Senate approval as Secretary of State. As the White House tried to pick up the pieces surrounding the President’s failed VA pick, officials were able to celebrate a 57-42 vote in the Senate to confirm CIA chief Mike Pompeo as the next Secretary of State, giving the President a top diplomat who clearly seems more in line with Mr. Trump’s world view. Six Democrats – Donnelly (Indiana), Heitkamp (North Dakota), Jones (Alabama), Manchin (West Virginia), McCaskill (Missouri), and Nelson (Florida), joined with all Republicans, and one independent (King of Maine) in voting for Pompeo as the 70th Secretary of State. “He has the qualifications and experience necessary to successfully fulfill his role,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).   In the midst of all of the other controversy involving the President and the White House on this Thursday, the Pompeo vote was a big win, as was later Senate approval of the President’s choice for Ambassador to Germany,  Richard Grenell.

7. Pruitt dukes it out with lawmakers in contentious hearing. After weeks of stories about ethics issues involving his stewardship at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt spent much of Thursday in the proverbial ‘hot seat’ in Congress, defending his work at the EPA, and warding off the verbal barbs of Democrats. “You are unfit to hold public office,” one said. “You seem unable to take responsibility for your actions,” added another. “In any other administration, Republican or Democrat, you would be long gone by now,” said one more Democrat.  While Pruitt sternly defended his decisions, he seemed to change his story on the exact reasons that he needed a $43,000 secure phone booth for his office, and altered his explanation of raises which were engineered for some of his top aides, as he left Democrats looking for deeper explanations on a variety of fronts. While Pruitt seemed to survive the theater of Thursday’s hearings, it wasn’t clear if he had inadvertently opened other lines of questions about some of his actions.

8. The first real push back on Russia from Congress. There has been talk for months from Republicans about how they could dissuade President Trump from threats to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller – but on Thursday – there was finally legislative action, as the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill which would allow the Judicial Branch to review the firing of someone like Mueller. The plan was supported by four Republicans, all the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “While I do not believe President Trump intends to remove Special Counsel Mueller, I believe this legislation has enduring value for future special counsel investigations,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not schedule this bill for a vote – but it still represented the first real warning shot by the GOP Congress to the President on the Russia probe – and Mueller.   Look for Democrats to start making a lot of public calls for a vote on this bill, as they try to convince the President to leave Mueller alone.

9. Diamond and Silk make their case to Congress. Almost any other day, the appearance on Capitol Hill of Diamond and Silk, a pair of black women who have become darlings of conservative politicians, would have made for big news – but instead it was merely a footnote in a day of fast-paced political events. At a House hearing that looked at political bias on the internet, the two social media personalities made the case that Facebook and YouTube had – on purpose – reduced their ability to make money by ‘monetizing’ videos on those social media platforms, simply because of their political views and support for President Trump. Any other day, this would have been playing live on the cable channels, and would have dominated social media. But on this Thursday, there was too much to digest. So, to paraphrase John Stewart’s line from the Daily Show, here’s your five minutes of Zen. Watching this video is also a good test, as one might expect that people on both sides will find reasons to like what they see and hear, no matter your personal political bias.

10. My kids don’t know how big their Thursday was. All of my kids have come to work with me over the years at the Capitol; this time I brought my two younger boys. They were tuckered out by mid-afternoon as I dragged them up and down the stairs, chasing lawmakers, doing interviews, checking the traps, and seeing old friends all around Capitol Hill. In the midst of all of the news, all the partisan bickering, all of the political drama, it’s important to remind people that those who work on Capitol Hill are good souls. My parents started work in the halls of Congress in the late 1950’s, and I’m still here almost 60 years later. We had just walked into the Capitol on Thursday when we ran into Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). It was just steps from where I remember – as a 12 year old – meeting Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC). Maybe they’ll stick around Capitol Hill, maybe not. But it’s great to have them here. I just wish there had been a little less news.

 


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