Coming off a spectacularly horrendous week, Donald Trump got straight to work this week to put some points on the board, blasting the "very dishonest" media in a disgruntled diatribe, shaming a handful of Congressional Republicans, and preemptively undercutting lawmakers' efforts to keep the government solvent.
This is leadership to Trump. It's not about serving others or progressing toward a shared goal: it's about satisfying his insatiable need to save face by belittling others. That's a "win" to him. So instead of leading the way, Trump spreads the onus for failure liberally on all those around him so whatever happens, he can point fingers in every direction.
But Trump's efforts this week stood out as particularly desperate in light of a series of conversations Trump has been having behind the scenes concerning one topic in particular: Russia.
Journalists turned up several notable instances in which Trump dialed up key Republican lawmakers to either dissuade their efforts or chastise them.
Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has become the public face of Trump's Capitol Hill shame campaign, with Trump declaring his "only problem" with McConnell was that he "failed!" on health care repeal and made "a mess" out of the effort to raise debt ceiling by the end of September.
But the real rub, of course, has the same roots as the one that sent Trump on an epic tear against his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In fact, Trump's McConnell bashing really gained steam after a phone call earlier this month.
During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.
But that's not the only call in which the topic of Russia "animated" Trump.
He placed two others to GOP Sens. Bob Corker and Thom Tillis in which he couldn't even use other issues like health care as a fig leaf. In the Corker conversation, Trump tried to convince the GOP senator and Foreign Relations Committee chair to kill the Russia sanctions bill, which ultimately cleared both chambers late last month with overwhelming support.
Trump argued that the legislation was unconstitutional and said it would damage his presidency. Corker was unrelenting, these people said, and told Trump the bill was going to pass both houses with bipartisan support.
One source described Trump as "clearly frustrated" during that call. Trump was back at it on August 7, ringing up Sen. Tillis about a measure he was authoring with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons to shield special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation from tinkering by Trump.
Trump was unhappy with the legislation and didn't want it to pass, one person familiar with the call said.
Absolutely every one of these calls fits into a pattern that dates back to the very beginning of Trump's administration: him pressuring then-FBI Director James Comey to back off the Michael Flynn investigation; him demanding Comey's "loyalty"; him seeking Comey's public declaration that he wasn't under investigation; him asking Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny the FBI's collusion investigation; and, as far back as February, his team pressing GOP Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Devin Nunes to push back against reports about his campaign's ties to Russia.
When it comes to the Don and Russia, nothing is coincidental anymore—including Team Trump's efforts to dismiss former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as playing a "very limited role" in the election effort. On the heels of the FBI's early-morning raid last month of Manafort's home came the Friday news that special counsel Robert Mueller issued his first grand jury subpoenas in the Russia investigation—all of them business associates of Manafort. In other words, Mueller is now putting the squeeze on Manafort's circle of contacts.
Nor is it coincidental that Donald Trump went to Phoenix to deliver a speech billed as a "campaign rally" in which he devoted more energy to attacking the credibility of the media than to any other single issue.
He called reporters "sick people" who were stoking "division" in the nation because, in Trump's estimation, "They don't like our country. I really believe that."
The translation is clearly that any reporter, journalist, or media outlet that doesn't come down on Trump's side is a traitor to our country. And just in case people weren't sure exactly who Trump was implicating, he called them out by name: the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. Again, not coincidentally, the Times and the Post have broken the vast majority of big Kremlin-related Trump stories.
“It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions,” he charged, adding, “They’re very dishonest people.”
Lest you think this well-trodded territory had no effect on attendees, the crowd broke into chants of "CNN sucks!" as Trump told them the outlet had cut its coverage of his event. It hadn't. But Trump's following took the bait, producing one of my favorites of the night.
The very rats who stand poised to rat Trump out on Russia to the American people. In fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meachum said on MSNBC Wednesday that watching the Phoenix speech he had a "sneaking suspicion" Trump was priming his supporters for a bombshell revelation on Russia that was not to be trusted when it broke.
On Friday night, Trump rounded out the week by giving his nativist base something it could really believe in: his commitment to pleasing them. A man who was convicted of defying the U.S. Constitution in pursuit of his racist goals is now above the law and transgender Americans who have pledged to give their lives for their country are now under scrutiny.
Trump may not have the attention span to sit through entire national security briefings, but he is laser focused when it comes to the Russia probe. It’s breathing down Trump’s neck and he’s working every angle to come out a survivor. But that won’t be a matter of public opinion or his base: it will be a question of whether he too is actually above the law. And with his indefensible pardon of former convicted criminal Joe Arpaio, Trump is signaling that he intends to do everything in his power to be just that.