The Stephanopoulos Interview Is Another Fine Mess for Trump
Some weeks the Trump Presidency is a horror show; some weeks it is slapstick. This week it was both. In the Middle East, tensions with Iran rose alarmingly, while, on the domestic front, Donald Trump got himself into yet another political mess. As of Saturday, it has been three days since Trump told George Stephanopoulos, of ABC News, that he would accept damaging information on political opponents from foreign governments, and the White House is still trying to repair the political damage. It isn’t working. Instead, things are only getting worse for the President.
One should never underestimate Trump’s capacity for self-harm, of course. This is the man who, in May, 2017, fired James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., in a fit of pique, thereby siccing a special counsel on himself and everyone around him for the next two years. This week’s blooper may not compare with that blunder for the ages, but it was epic, nonetheless. To begin with, consider the timing. Just two days before Trump sat down with Stephanopoulos, the House Judiciary Committee began its quest to build a public case against him on the basis of Volume II of the Mueller report, which focusses on possible obstruction of justice. In a hearing devoted to legal experts, John Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and went to prison for his role in the Watergate coverup, compared the special counsel’s report to the grand-jury report to Congress that played a significant role in Nixon’s downfall—the so-called Road Map. Like that document, the Mueller report “conveys findings, with supporting evidence, of potential criminal activity based on the work of federal prosecutors, F.B.I. investigators, and witness testimony before a federal grand jury,” Dean said in his opening statement.
But if Monday’s hearing annoyed the President—he lashed out at Dean in advance of his testimony—it didn’t necessarily represent any new threat to him. Dean and the other witnesses had no news to impart. Nor could they provide any firsthand accounts of the incidents contained in the Mueller report. The hearing produced no blockbuster moment, and there were subsequent reports that some Democrats had questioned the wisdom of calling Dean. So far, so good for Trump, but then came his Rose Garden sitdown with the ABC News anchor.
It all started to go wrong for the White House when Stephanopoulos brought up Donald Trump, Jr.,’s closed-door appearance on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Stephanopolous asked Trump if his son should have contacted the F.B.I. when, in the summer of 2016, he received an e-mail from the British publicist Rob Goldstone offering him a meeting with some Russians connected to the Russian government who allegedly had the goods on Hillary Clinton. As he has done before, Trump defended Donald, Jr. Then he doubled down and tripled down. By the time he was done, Trump had said that “you don’t” call the F.B.I. in such circumstances; asserted that the current F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray, “is wrong” to suggest you do; and vouchsafed that in the 2020 election, if the Chinese or Russians offered him information on his opponents, “I think I’d take it.” (He also said, “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the F.B.I.—if I thought there was something wrong.”)
“Does the President actually want Congress to impeach him?” my colleague Susan B. Glasser asked in her weekly Letter from Washington. To that question, on balance, it appears that the answer is no. Rather than trying to goad the Democrats, Trump appears to have simply been doing what he always does: running his mouth. His primary argument, which has some substance, is that, these days, virtually everyone in electoral politics uses negative information, or “oppo research,” on their opponents. But it is a long way from uttering this sad truism to suggesting that it’s O.K. for a Presidential candidate to accept favors from foreign governments. “Let me make something 100% clear to the American public or anyone running for public office: It is illegal to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” Ellen Weintraub, the head of the Federal Election Commission, the independent body tasked with enforcing campaign-finance laws, said in a statement on Thursday night.
Trump had not only stated that he would willingly break the law. He had also reminded everyone of the contents of Volume I of the Mueller report, which detailed the extensive contacts in 2016 and thereafter between people connected to the Trump campaign and people connected to Vladimir Putin. The report concluded that the Russian government, with its hacking and Internet disinformation efforts, purposefully assisted the Trump campaign, and that some people connected to the campaign were eager to make the most of this assistance. But the report also said, “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy”—a statement that Trump and his allies seized upon as vindication of the President’s refrain that there was “No collusion,” even though the report said explicitly, “we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion.’ ” Now here was Trump saying, in effect, that he would gladly collude.
Even the late-night comics, who have been feeding on Trump’s gaffes for years, were stunned, a Vanity Fair article noted. Seth Myers: “The guy who has spent two years scream-tweeting ‘NO COLLUSION!’ is now saying, ‘If anyone’s down to collude, I’m your guy.’ . . . If Trump had been President during Watergate, he would have left a business card at the break-in.” Stephen Colbert: “You’ve got to imagine Robert Mueller is just getting home with all of his boxes after clearing out his office, turns on the TV, and he’s like, ‘Damn it, honey, I’m going back to work. I’ll see you in another two years.’ ”
When the news about Trump’s statements broke, the reflex response of his Republican enablers was to scream “Christopher Steele”—a reference to the former British spy who was paid by a law firm working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign (and, before it, a conservative newspaper) to dig up dirt on Trump. Politico pointed out that the House Republicans’ own 2018 report on Russian interference in the 2016 election said, “It is not illegal to contract with a foreign person or foreign entity for services, including conducting opposition research on a U.S. campaign, so long as the service was paid for at the market rate.” The full contents of the dossier were also not made public until after the election. It had no impact on the vote.
So much for that comparison. By Friday, a number of Republicans who usually defend Trump were peeling away from him on this one. “I think you have an obligation to pick up the phone and call the F.B.I. if we know this is from a foreign government,” Representative Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, said. “I don’t think that’s going to sit well with most Americans. It shouldn’t. It’s just not an appropriate way to behave in a political campaign.” In a rare acknowledgment that he had erred, Trump was prompted to call into his favorite show, “Fox & Friends,” to try to do some cleanup. He still insisted that he would accept the information from a foreign power—“because if you don’t look at it you won’t know it’s bad,” he said. Then he went on: “But, of course, you give it to the F.B.I. or report it to the Attorney General or somebody like that. But, of course, you do that—you couldn’t have that happen with our country—and everybody understands that, and I thought it was made clear.”
What was made very clear, of course, was Trump’s culpability. Far too clear for Trump’s most ardent defenders. Instead of holding Trump responsible for his statements, Fox News anchors demanded an inquest into how Stephanopoulos, a journalist who once worked in the Clinton White House, received so much access to the President. According to ABC News, Stephanopoulos was in Trump’s company for thirty hours. In addition to carrying out the interview, he flew on Air Force One and sat through a number of White House meetings. Sean Hannity, the primus inter pares of the Trump mouthpieces at Fox, dismissed Stephanopoulos as “Little Georgie,” Erik Wemple, the Washington Post’s press critic, noted. Laura Ingraham said she didn’t know who at the White House had approved the interview. Tucker Carlson said, “I’m not here to defend Trump’s interview with Stephanopoulos. Why would you have given an interview to Stephanopoulos in the first place? It’s a very good question.”
The most likely explanation is that spending a few days in the company of a network anchorman appealed to the President’s vanity. On Friday, the damage continued. ABC News released another clip of the Stephanopoulos interview, in which Trump accused the former White House counsel, Don McGahn, of lying when he told Mueller that, in the summer of 2017, Trump twice asked him to fire the special counsel.
“I never suggested firing Mueller,” Trump claimed. Stephanopoulos pushed back, asking Trump why McGahn would lie under oath. “Because he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer,” Trump replied. “Or he believed it because I would constantly tell anybody that would listen—including you, including the media—that Robert Mueller was conflicted. Robert Mueller had a total conflict of interest.”
On this vital matter, which goes to the heart of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice, it is Trump’s word against the word of two others: McGahn and his former chief of staff at the White House, Annie Donaldson, who reportedly took detailed notes about her boss’s exchanges with the President. To put it another way, this is an area where great peril may lurk for Trump, and, rather than stepping carefully, he’s just plunged into it head first.