Donald Trump certainly seems like he’s having a lovely time on his first international trip as president. He touched down in Saudi Arabia over the weekend and was given an over-the-top reception by his hosts. The Saudis presented him with a medal, projected his portrait onto the side of a hotel, and extended to him the finest treatment an oil-rich monarchy that just purchased many billions of dollars-worth of American-made weapons could muster for a U.S. president. For Trump, whose personal style is borrowed from the Bourbons, a king’s welcome must feel pretty good.
Hopefully the president is enjoying himself as much as possible overseas, because back home, his administration is rapidly falling to pieces.
Just as Air Force One was lifting off to ferry Trump to Riyadh, The New York Times and The Washington Post each published seismically significant pieces on the White House’s ever-expanding Russia scandal. The Timesreported that Trump, during an Oval Office meeting the day after he fired FBI director James Comey, told high-level Russian officials that Comey was a “nut job” and firing him had relieved the “great pressure” Trump felt “because of Russia.” The Post, meanwhile, reported that the Justice Department’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia has identified a senior White House official as “a significant person of interest.”
Shortly after the Times and Post stories hit, CNN came through with another big scoop, reporting that Russian officials had boasted during the 2016 campaign that they could use former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to influence Trump and his associates.
The Times piece in particular is brutal for Trump. At the time the president divulged to the Russians his motivation for firing his FBI director, the administration was still sticking to its ridiculous story that Comey lost his job because he botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. That means officials from an adversarial government knew the White House wasn’t being honest about a politically explosive subject.
On top of that, Trump’s comments to the Russians could become the focus of an obstruction of justice inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was tapped to assume control of the Russia investigation following Comey’s dismissal. Trump had already told NBC’s Lester Holt that the Russia investigation factored into his decision to fire Comey, and the Timesreport adds significant weight to the idea that Trump’s primary motivation in sacking Comey was to neutralize an issue that was damaging him politically.
The Post report, meanwhile, feels like the first strong indication that the Russia investigation has the potential to cut deeply. The fact that a senior White House official is coming under scrutiny is obviously a problem for Trump, but the Post also reported that the FBI inquiry now “also includes determining whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president.”
Trumpworld is well-populated with characters whose business dealings look pretty scummy — Michael Flynn and undeclared foreign lobbying money, Paul Manafort and his “black ledger” payments from pro-Russia political parties in Ukraine, etc. The president and his closest advisers have all gone to great lengths to keep their sources of income concealed, even as they make policy that could potentially impact their own finances. I suspect the last thing any of them want is a Department of Justice investigation into where their money comes from.
At a broader level, all of these new Russia scandal developments reveal just how dysfunctional the executive branch has become under Trump. The Times, Post, and CNN stories were all the product of leaks: from the White House, the Justice Department, and the intelligence community, respectively. Trump had been doing a bang-up job of alienating the people underneath him before he fired Comey, but his abrupt and unceremonious dumping of the FBI director has clearly exacerbated some already raw feelings and made life even more miserable for the people charged with implementing Trump’s agenda.
Trump staffers are feeding stories to reporters about how life in the White House is a miserable slog and people are looking for exits. Others are giving anonymous quotes about how Trump looks like a “moron” and might get himself impeached. All of the administration’s self-made crises are pushing the people on the inside to break ranks and feed dirt to reporters.
An administration cannot expect to function properly under these circumstances. The White House is just oozing poison at this point, and the growing toxicity is undermining everything the president and his aides are trying to do. The accelerating Russia investigation paired with Trump’s penchant for political self-destruction guarantee that things won’t improve any time soon.