Week of chaos, again, engulfs Trump's Washington

Another bitter week that took Washington to the brink of exhaustion landed Donald Trump at the epicenter of more trag...

Posted: Feb 18, 2018 7:52 AM
Updated: Feb 18, 2018 7:53 AM

Another bitter week that took Washington to the brink of exhaustion landed Donald Trump at the epicenter of more tragedy, scandal and rancor than a conventional president would hope to face in a full year.

The White House was sent reeling by the Florida school massacre, new indictments in the Russia probe, its own mishandling of domestic abuse claims against a top staffer, allegations that Trump covered up extra-marital affairs and another huge immigration fail.

All of this unfolded when the administration hoped to focus on infrastructure -- when the big headlines would involve the President pushing his next big agenda item.

Instead, Trump offered a fresh example of his propensity to draw the capital, and the rest of the nation into his cone of chaos. Each of the week's staggering and occasionally horrific events will have profound political reverberations. They are already further poisoning trust in Washington and stretching bonds of national unity in a way that will make the already all-but-impossible task of governing more difficult.

Mueller's probe

The sting in the tail of the week came when special counsel Robert Mueller unloaded 13 indictments on Russian nationals accused of running the Kremlin's attempt to influence the 2016 election, eventually settling on a plan to damage Hillary Clinton and to help Trump win.

Mueller's surprise strike was not just the most comprehensive account of the meddling effort so far and the first time he has laid charges relating to the core thrust of his investigation -- Russia's election meddling operation. It was also another sign of how little outsiders know about the sweep of his investigation, a factor that must worry White House lawyers.

The President quickly seized on a detail of the indictment that noted Trump campaign staffers were unwittingly approached by the Russians to trumpet his claims that his assaults on the probe were vindicated.

"The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!" he tweeted.

His crowing might be premature, however, since the indictment did not make any reference to known liaisons between Trump staffers and Russia or the activities of senior campaign and administration officials under investigation.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told CNN's "The Situation Room" on Friday that Trump was "engaged in some magical thinking here that somehow, this indictment exonerates him. Nothing of the kind."

It is still possible that Mueller exonerates Trump and his campaign. But in time to come, the indictment could also be seen as the latest jigsaw piece put in place by Mueller that could eventually serve as the legal backdrop for any eventual determination that collusion or obstruction of justice did take place.

That's because Mueller established that Russian election interference was a criminal matter -- significantly increasing the consequences for anyone in Trump's orbit who has the potential of being implicated in the affair.

It will also now be far harder for Trump to claim that the Russia meddling story is a huge "hoax." Furthermore, the evidence of a genuine threat to American democratic institutions that Mueller laid out may make it much harder for Republicans to shield Trump politically if he fires the special counsel.

Pressure is also mounting on the administration to finally impose sanctions against Moscow over the election scandal. And ties between Washington and the Kremlin are sure to sour. But the picture Mueller painted of a sophisticated Russian operation is sure to enhance President Vladimir Putin's reputation as a master of the dark arts of espionage, despite Russian denials.

CNN has reported that former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates is nearing a plea deal with Mueller, which will also meanwhile mean a nervy weekend for the White House.

Parkland shooting

As Friday's Russia story broke, Trump was on his way to honor the victims of Wednesday's school shooting in Parkland, Florida, by visiting Broward Health North hospital, where many of the victims were treated.

In the immediate aftermath of the rampage on Wednesday, Trump was absent, apart from offering condolences on Twitter, and then seemed to blame local people for not spotting the apparent mental turmoil of the suspected shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz. When he finally appeared on camera 20 hours after the attack he promised to keep America's kids safe. But one word was missing from his remarks -- guns -- as Democrats demanded reforms to deal with high-powered, military style weapons the killer used, and Republicans immediately accused them of politicizing the tragedy to snatch the guns of law abiding Americans.

The depressing familiarity of the ritual underscored how sharp political divides are likely to mean nothing meaningful happens after the tragedy.

Republicans on Friday were quick to seize on reports that the FBI had missed a tip-off about the shooter to alleviate political pressure, after students at the school appeared on television to demand changes to gun laws.

But the debate will flare back to life after the next, inevitable, massacre.

Porter abuse scandal

The Florida killings overshadowed what had until then been the dominant story of the week, the White House's pushback against claims of abuse against departed senior staffer Rob Porter by two ex-wives.

Trump's response, as it often does, made the storm much worse as he came across as more concerned with Porter's lost career than for the plight of the woman who told the FBI about their plight.

The political impact of the scandal was magnified because the claims caused the FBI to block Porter's security clearance, leaving him operating on an interim version, despite the fact his job required him to handle classified intelligence.

CNN then reported that at least 100 officials served with the similar interim clearances until November, in a highly unusual move that raised questions about the backgrounds and credentials of many administration staffers.

At times, the White House's shifting explanations had it digging ever deeper in to the mire. On Friday chief of staff John Kelly, whose credibility was badly damaged by the episode, issued new guidelines on the clearance process, calling on the FBI to quickly share derogatory information about staffers with the White House counsel's office and suspending background checks of officials who have been waiting for a sign-off since last June.


Kelly has also been a key player in the White House's hardline immigration policy which has left hundreds of thousands of people brought to the US illegally as children in limbo after Congress again failed to act on a compromise to shield them in return for funding for Trump's border wall.

Fierce White House assaults helped to blow up a compromise plan in the Senate, but Trump's own four-pillared proposal, which also reforms legal immigration, perished in the chamber by an even bigger margin.

The debacle meant that people affected by the expiration of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program still do not know their fate.

But the furor may have protected Trump's right flank and defused a campaign by far right media against him that has seen him labeled "Amnesty Don."

Alleged affairs

Trump began the week embarrassed by revelations that his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, had paid $130,000 to former porn star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election. The news provoked questions on whether Cohen -- who insisted he was acting on his own initiative and with his own funds -- had infringed campaign finance laws by trying buying the silence of Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Trump.

The President's week ended with a stunning new report in The New Yorker that detailed an alleged affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal in 2006 and 2007 and an alleged scheme involving the National Enquirer to cover it up.

The report sparked fresh speculation about the state of Trump's marriage to first lady Melania Trump and questions about the activities of the President's entourage, as well as his potential exposure to more compromising situations.

Trump was also preoccupied with other peoples' scandals, specifically those of two members of his administration, Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who are both under scrutiny over extravagant travel arrangements.

Normally, either episode would be a huge headache for Trump, but such was the turmoil in Washington this week, neither became dominant stories, though they added to the churn of sleaze and scandal around has administration.

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