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The Daily 202: How Comey’s battles with the Bush White House prepared him to stand up to Trump

The Daily 202: How Comey’s battles with the Bush White House prepared him to stand up to Trump

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

THE BIG IDEA: 

The revelations about President Trump in James Comey’s new book have been well digested, but the ousted FBI director’s riveting account of his clashes with the George W. Bush White House has been almost entirely overlooked.

Comey, who was then deputy attorney general, reflects on the role he played in upholding the rule of law during three dark chapters of the Bush years: the prosecution of Scooter Libby, the fight over the NSA’s warrantless surveillance operation and his opposition to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.

He devotes 67 pages of “A Higher Loyalty,” which comes out on Tuesday, to these episodes. That’s about the same amount of ink he spills on the current president. Collectively, they deepened his conviction that the Justice Department must be independent enough to check the president. This is especially relevant after Trump’s pardon of Libby last Friday.

Anti-Bush sentiment has softened over the past decade, and Trump’s smash-mouth style of politics has prompted many critics of the last Republican president to reappraise his performance. Comey offers a corrective that will remind liberals why they loathed Bush so much.

— In contrast to Trump, who is an unmistakable villain in his account, Comey portrays Bush as almost a victim — a principal who was poorly served by White House staffers pursuing their own agendas. He emphasizes that he liked Bush personally, wanted him to succeed and suggests the president made a good-faith effort to get to the right place.

But Comey explains that Bush also had “a slight mean streak.” In one vignette, he was briefing the president about a terrorism case as he prepared to board Marine One. As the helicopter approached the South Lawn, Bush paused Comey and turned to watch the White House press corps gathered outside. “The descent of the helicopter swept up the snow on the ground, creating a whiteout blizzard that coated all of the reporters in snow. Some of them looked like snowmen. Embarrassed snowmen,” Comey writes. “He clearly enjoyed watching that scene.”

He says Bush’s biting jokes often came at the expense of other people: “He teased people in a slightly edgy way, which seemed to betray some insecurity in his personality. His teasing was used as a way to ensure that the hierarchy in his relationship with others was understood, a strange thing given that he was president of the United States, and it was a sure way to deter his people from challenging the leader’s reasoning.”

“STELLAR WIND”

Before the 2016 donnybrook over Hillary Clinton’s emails, Comey was best known for his dramatic testimony about the Bush White House’s efforts to renew a National Security Agency surveillance program he had concluded was unconstitutional. Justice Department lawyers concluded that the initiative, code-named Stellar Wind, had been authorized on legally dubious grounds and was operating in “clearly unlawful” ways.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was in poor health. Comey, as acting AG, wouldn’t reauthorize it as a deadline approached in March 2004. So White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales went to the hospital to try getting Ashcroft to sign off. Comey met them at his bedside, and Ashcroft rejected their entreaties.

Comey poignantly recounts the dramatic confrontation at Ashcroft’s bedside: “Without looking at me, the two men turned toward the door. When their heads were turned, Janet Ashcroft scrunched her face and stuck her tongue out at them.”

Five minutes later, then-FBI Director Bob Mueller arrived and praised Ashcroft for standing up to the Bush envoys. “In every man’s life there comes a time when the good Lord tests him,” Mueller told Ashcroft. “You passed your test tonight.”

“My heart was racing,” Comey writes. “I was feeling slightly dizzy. But when I heard Bob Mueller’s tender words, I felt like crying. The law had held.”

Comey writes about his clashes at the staff level before it got to the president. He sought help from Condi Rice in his quest to make the program comply with the law, but the then-national security adviser rebuffed him through a deputy.

He attended a meeting in Card’s office, during which he explained to senior White House officials why the legal opinion that had justified the program was so bad as to be “facially invalid.”

He writes that Vice President Dick Cheney looked at him “gravely” and replied, “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you are doing.”

“It was obvious that the purpose of the meeting was to squeeze me,” Comey explains. “To have the vice president of the United States accuse me of recklessly producing another 9/11 — even seeming to suggest that I was doing it intentionally — was stunning.”

Comey, as is his way, dug in. “No lawyer could rely upon it,” he said he told Cheney.

The bête noire of Comey’s narrative is David Addington, who was Cheney’s chief counsel and succeeded Libby as his chief of staff. He’s a famously outspoken and unapologetic advocate of making expansive claims of executive power.

Addington chimed in. “I’m a lawyer, and I did,” he said.

“I didn’t break eye contact with the vice president,” Comey writes. “‘No good lawyer,’ I added.”

Comey is a skilled player of the Washington game, and he understands that one of the most satisfying reasons to write a memoir is to settle old scores. He’s taking a lot of hits for being sanctimonious in the early reviews of his book, and there is certainly a holier-than-thou undercurrent to the book. But he’s also self-deprecating and shows self-awareness throughout.

“It was unusual for me to be nasty like that,” Comey writes of the clash with Cheney. “But Addington reminded me of someone. He seemed like a bully, not too different in some ways from the kids who picked on me back in school. … In philosophy and temperament, he was a reflection of [Cheney]. He did not tolerate fools and had an ever-expanding definition of those who fit the category. … Addington’s anger was an increasingly reliable indicator that we were on the right track.”

Comey offers a detailed, novelistic account of a one-on-one meeting he had with Bush in the president’s private dining room about the showdown:

“You don’t look well,” the president told him.

“I haven’t been sleeping much,” Comey confessed. “I feel a tremendous burden.”

“Let me lift that burden from your shoulders,” Bush said.

“I wish you could, Mr. President,” Comey said. “But you can’t. I feel like I’m standing in the middle of railroad tracks. A train is coming that is going to run over me and my career, but I can’t get off the tracks. … Because we simply can’t find a reasonable argument to support parts of the Stellar Wind program. We just can’t certify to its legality.”

“But I say what the law is for the executive branch,” Bush told him.

“You do, sir, but only I can say what the Justice Department can certify as lawful, and we can’t here,” Comey replied. “We have done our best, but as Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other.’”

Bush then complained Comey was springing these objections on him at the last minute before the program needed to be reauthorized. “If that’s what you were told, Mr. President, you’ve been badly misled by your staff,” Comey shot back. “We have been telling them about this for weeks.”

Bush asked to let the program continue for a few weeks while he sought a legislative fix. Comey said that would be inappropriate and unlawful. “The American people are going to freak out when they find out what we have been doing,” Comey added.

“Let me worry about that,” Bush replied. In Comey’s telling, the president had become “irritated” and he made this comment “sharply.”

Worried that Comey, Mueller and other senior Justice Department officials would resign in protest, causing an election year firestorm, Bush backed down and ordered that the program be adjusted to a place where Comey felt comfortable.

Comey successfully turns 14-year-old bureaucratic infighting between government lawyers into a page turner. He says that the secret orders authorizing the sensitive programs were kept in a safe in the vice president’s office so that they would not be considered official presidential records. To get around this, he decided to send a classified memo to the president summarizing the problems with the program. “That would make it a presidential record forever,” Comey writes. “It was a bit of a jerk move, because it created a permanent and complete record of all the ways they had been out of bounds, but the time to be a jerk was now.”

White House lawyers responded with their own top-secret memo pushing back. “The memo was a big middle finger, clearly written by Addington,” he recalls. “It rejected all our proposed changes … It said nothing about our mothers being whores, but it might as well have.”

Just two days later, Bush relented and signed a new order that incorporated all Comey’s suggested changes to the surveillance program. “The order said the president was making these changes for operational reasons, not because we said he had to or because our interpretation of the law required it,” he said. “That was childish, but we really didn’t care.”

“THE TORTURE GUY”

After the warrantless surveillance issue was solved, Comey battled with Cheney and his aides again over whether the CIA had the legal authority to use so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

Comey makes an impassioned case against these practices in his book, noting that FBI experts concluded many years ago that they’re ineffective. “The CIA leadership and … Cheney held a starkly different view,” he laments. “They were driven by one of the most powerful and disconcerting forces in human nature — confirmation bias.”

One night when he got home from work in 2004, his wife Patrice broached the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. “Torture is wrong,” she told him. “Don’t be the torture guy.”

“She would periodically repeat that admonition over the next year,” Comey writes. “The prospect of being the ‘torture guy’ disturbed my sleep for many nights. I couldn’t get away from the mental pictures of naked men chained to the ceiling in a cold, blazingly lit cell for endless days, defecating in their diapers, unchained only to be further abused and convinced they were drowning, before being rechained.”

Comey said he felt like he was in a foxhole with Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, during their battles with the White House. Goldsmith, with Comey’s support, withdrew the Justice Department decisions that had allowed for enhanced interrogation — much to Cheney and company’s chagrin. 

After he won reelection, Bush replaced Ashcroft with Gonzales, a loyalist who had been with him in Austin. “I found out later that President Bush called Gonzales. immediately after the announcement and suggested that he call me,” Comey writes. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but after what I knew — and had not talked about — from the Ashcroft hospital scene, I was something of a loaded gun in the Bush administration’s eyes, one that could go off at any moment. Because I was a loaded weapon, they handled me with care, but it was obvious to me that serving as Gonzales’s deputy was not the right thing for me.”

Comey left the administration in 2005. The loaded gun went off in 2007 when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what had transpired at Ashcroft’s bedside. Gonzales wound up resigning under a cloud of scandal, stemming from the firing of U.S. attorneys for political purposes.

DEFENDING THE LIBBY PROSECUTION

Bush elevated Comey from a U.S. attorney’s office in Richmond to be U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because he had worked in the office a decade earlier under Rudy Giuliani, prosecuted terrorism cases and was acceptable to both parties. Later, he was promoted again to become deputy attorney general. Comey said Gonzales asked him if he was “strong enough to stand up to John Ashcroft.”

“That struck me as an odd question to ask about the president’s handpicked attorney general,” Comey writes. “Although I couldn’t see it from my job in Manhattan, there was tension between the White House and Ashcroft over the perception that the attorney general was preparing his own political future and that his interests didn’t align entirely with President Bush’s.”

Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation into the disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity because White House aide Karl Rove had managed one of his Senate campaigns in Missouri. Like Rod Rosenstein with the Russia investigation, that left the choice of how to proceed to Comey. In December 2003, he tapped Patrick Fitzgerald, who was U.S. attorney in Chicago, as the special counsel.

A week later, Comey was filling in for Ashcroft during a Cabinet meeting and seated next to Cheney. “As we waited for the president, I figured I should be polite,” Comey writes. “I turned to Cheney and said, ‘Mr. Vice President, I’m Jim Comey from Justice.’ Without turning to face me, he said, ‘I know. I’ve seen you on TV.’ Cheney then locked his gaze ahead, as if I weren’t there. We waited in silence for the president.”

He vigorously defends his friend’s decision to prosecute Libby. Cheney’s chief of staff was convicted of four felonies in 2007, including making false statements in a federal investigation, perjury and obstruction of justice. “Libby not only lied about his interaction with Tim Russert, claiming that he’d heard the covert agent’s name from him, but eight Bush administration officials testified that they talked to Libby about the covert agent’s name,” Comey writes. “More evidence revealed that Libby had proactively discussed the CIA employee with reporters, at the vice president’s request, to ‘push back’ on stories critical of the administration’s basis for invading Iraq. Why Libby — an attorney who graduated from Columbia Law School — lied is not clear. Maybe he didn’t want to admit that the leak started at the vice president’s office, which would have caused political embarrassment, or he didn’t want to admit to an angry President Bush that he had been among the leakers.”

Cheney has always maintained that the prosecution stemmed from a witch hunt. “Scooter Libby is one of the most capable, principled, and honorable men I have ever known,” the former vice president said in a statement on Friday. “He is innocent, and he and his family have suffered for years because of his wrongful conviction.”

Barack Obama was willing to tap Comey to be FBI director in 2013, even though he was a registered Republican and had donated to his opponent, because he had proved his independence during the Bush years. Looking back, Comey writes that the Libby episode taught him “painful, exhausting lessons in the importance of institutional loyalty over expediency and politics.” “And more preparation,” he writes, “for the future I couldn’t yet see.”

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— In his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that aired last night, Comey said he believed Trump was “morally unfit to be president” and that it was “possible” that the Russians have material that could be used to blackmail him. From Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett: “Comey took aim at Trump in no uncertain terms, … asserting there was evidence that he had committed a crime. He said that he would not favor impeaching Trump to remove him from office, because that ‘would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty-bound to do directly’ — meaning through elections.

As he did in his book, Comey detailed in the interview Trump’s fixation on unproven allegations that he watched prostitutes urinate on one another in a Moscow hotel in 2013, asserting that Trump at one point said he was contemplating ordering Comey to investigate and disprove the incident because he did not want ‘even a 1 percent chance’ that his wife, first lady Melania Trump, would believe it happened. Comey said that struck him as odd. ‘I remember thinking, ‘How could your wife think there’s a 1 percent chance you were with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow?’’ he said, adding that his assessment was it’s possible Trump is guilty of the accusation. ‘I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.’”

Comey said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “acted dishonorably” in writing a memo lambasting his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton, which was used as a rationale to fire him. “He later said, though, that he did not believe Rosenstein would fire [Bob Mueller] if ordered by Trump to do so, and that Rosenstein ‘has an opportunity … to restore some of his professional reputation.’

Parts of the interview are likely to revive the fury of Clinton supporters who think he cost her the presidency by reopening the email investigation less than two weeks before the election. When Stephanopoulos asked him if the decision was ‘influenced by your assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win,’ Comey replied: ‘It must have been. I don’t remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been. ’Cause I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump.’”

— Read the full transcript of the interview here.

— The White House and the RNC continue their vigorous pushback:

— More WaPo coverage:

  • Philip Bump: “Whom is Comey trying to convince? The third of Americans with no opinion of him.”
  • Karen Tumulty: “Donald Trump is contagious. He turned James Comey into Donald Trump.”
  • Carlos Lozada: “In his new book, James Comey calls for ‘ethical leadership.’ But does he live up to it?”
  • Carol Leonnig will interview Comey at The Post on May 8.

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

— Trump is asking a federal judge to allow him to review materials that FBI agents seized from the office of Michael Cohen before criminal investigators have a chance to see the documents. Devlin Barrett reports: “Trump’s request … could further complicate a hearing set for Monday afternoon. During that session, lawyers for Cohen are expected to tell the judge overseeing the case how many legal clients he has and how many seized documents he thinks might be covered by attorney-client privilege. Prosecutors indicated in court filings Friday that Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan and that a grand jury has been hearing evidence in the case. The eight-page letter written by Trump’s lawyer, Joanna Hendon, accuses the Justice Department of acting in ‘an aggressive, intrusive, and unorthodox manner’ in an attempt to ‘eliminate the president’s right to a full assertion of every privilege argument available to him.’”

— Cohen used the same Delaware shell company to facilitate payments to both Stormy Daniels and the Playboy model allegedly impregnated by former RNC deputy finance chairman Elliott Broidy. The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Rothfeld, Erica Orden and Joe Palazzolo report: “Broidy paid an initial installment of $62,500 to the company, Essential Consultants LLC, as part of Mr. Cohen’s $250,000 total fee for negotiating a nondisclosure agreement related to Mr. Broidy’s affair … Federal prosecutors are examining money flowing in and out of Essential Consultants as part of a broad investigation into Mr. Cohen’s activities to silence women with allegations against Mr. Trump or those in his orbit … Mr. Cohen also used Essential Consultants to pay $130,000 to [Daniels] …

Mr. Cohen succeeded around 2013 in killing a story Us Weekly was preparing about an alleged affair between Donald Trump Jr., who had been a judge a year earlier on the television show, ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ and one of the contestants, Aubrey O’Day, a member of the singing duo Dumblonde, according to people familiar with the matter. The magazine, then owned by Wenner Media, had what staffers believed to be a solid source on the alleged affair by the younger Mr. Trump and called the Trump Organization for comment, according to the people involved in the matter. They received a call back from Mr. Cohen, who threatened legal action and became so irate that they muted the call while he spoke, one of these people said. … The magazine’s staff didn’t believe it was a big story that would be worth a legal fight and had a good working relationship with the elder Mr. Trump on stories related to the TV show ‘The Apprentice,’ so they dropped the story.”

— Former first lady Barbara Bush is in failing health and will not seek further medical care, according to a statement from her husband’s office. Bush, 92, was hospitalized several times in the past year for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — a type of lung disease — as well as congestive heart failure, Carolyn Y. Johnson reports. “It will not surprise those who know her that Barbara Bush has been a rock in the face of her failing health, worrying not for herself — thanks to her abiding faith — but for others,” the statement said. “She is surrounded by a family she adores, and appreciates the many kind messages and especially the prayers she is receiving.”

So sweet: “I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago,” she wrote in the March edition of the alumnae magazine for Smith College.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) apologized after he suggested, without evidence, that protesting teachers had exposed “hundreds of thousands” of children to sexual assault by leaving the classroom. The educators are demonstrating against low wages and underfunded schools in the state. (Alex Horton)
  2. The Philadelphia police commissioner defended the actions of officers who handcuffed two black men in a Starbucks for not ordering anything. Richard Ross claimed the officers were responding to a trespassing complaint from Starbucks employees. (CNN)
  3. A prominent gay rights lawyer set himself on fire in New York’s Prospect Park to protest environmental destruction. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result,” David Buckel wrote in a final note, which he emailed to several news outlets. “[M]y early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.” (Cleve R. Wootson Jr.)
  4. HHS Secretary Alex Azar was hospitalized for an unspecified “minor infection.” A statement said Azar received intravenous drugs for his ailment, but it did not explain why a “minor infection” would require such a course of treatment. (Amy Goldstein)

  5. The Supreme Court will hear a case this week on whether states should be allowed to collect sales taxes for online purchases. A group of states led by South Dakota argue the court should overturn a 1992 precedent, which said retailers can only be forced to collect taxes in states where they have a “physical presence.” (Robert Barnes and Abha Bhattarai)

  6. Europe is setting a new standard for regulating tech companies. Sweeping new privacy rules will take effect across the European Union next month. Companies that fail to allow customers to better control their personal information could face billion-dollar fines. (Michael Birnbaum and Tony Romm)

  7. The Trump administration has begun supplying Mexico with drones and geolocation technology to track the country’s heroin production. U.S. officials say nearly all of the heroin in the United States originates from opium poppy in Mexico, but Mexican officials have been unable to track the growth of the illegal crop. (Joshua Partlow)

  8. More than 200 million eggs were recalled after U.S. officials tied 22 cases of salmonella to a massive farm and production facility in North Carolina. The recalled eggs were sold under brand names such as Great Value, Country and Glenview, and were also sold to Waffle House restaurants. (Kristine Phillips)

  9. A Pennsylvania company has recalled more than 8,700 pounds of prepackaged salad following a multistate E. coli outbreak that has sickened dozens of people and is believed to be tied to romaine lettuce. (Kristine Phillips)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

— The tougher administration stance toward Russia faces resistance from Trump himself, who believes that punitive measures imperil his ability to forge close ties with Vladimir Putin. Greg Jaffe, John Hudson and Philip Rucker have three incredible anecdotes that capture Trump’s reluctance to punish Putin — and the months-long pressure campaign that helped him get there:

  • Trump “erupted” after learning the United States ousted 60 Russians in response to the poisoning of a former spy, while France and Germany each expelled only five diplomats. “The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia. His briefers tried to reassure him that the sum total of European expulsions was roughly the same as the U.S. number. ‘I don’t care about the total!’ the administration official recalled Trump screaming.”
  •  Trump eventually conceded to selling antitank missiles to Ukraine after aides described a “lobbying effort” late last year by Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley and Jim Mattis. “To the surprise of even his closest advisers, the president agreed [to] the weapons transfer on the condition that the move be kept quiet … Aides tried to warn him that there was almost no way to stop the news from leaking.” When it broke, Trump was praised by Russia hawks in Congress — but was still furious. “For some reason, when it comes to Russia, he doesn’t hear the praise,” a top administration official said. “Politically speaking, the best thing for him to do is to be tough. … On that one issue, he cannot hear the praise.”
  • “Privately, he complained to aides that the media’s fixation on the Mueller probe was hobbling his effort to woo Putin. ‘I can’t put on the charm,’ the president often said, according to one of his advisers.”

— Meanwhile, Haley said Sunday the United States plans to impose more sanctions on Russia as soon as this week for its support of Syria’s chemical weapons program. Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said the sanctions are “imminent” and will target Russian companies that helped the Assad regime make and deploy chemical weapons. On “Fox News Sunday,” she blasted Russia for “enabling” Syria’s actions. “Assad knew that Russia had its back … and got reckless … We have to be conscious of the fact that we can’t allow even the smallest use of chemical weapons,” she said. If so, Haley said Trump is “prepared to strike Syria again.” (Carol Morello and James McAuley)

— Hours later, French President Emmanuel Macron took credit for helping “turn around Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops” from Syria. “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying that the United States would disengage from Syria,” Macron said Sunday night. “We convinced him that it was necessary to stay there long-term.”

— Mission accomplished? Syria’s government unleashed a new round of airstrikes on Sunday and shelled civilian homes on residents where the alleged chemical attack occurred. The Wall Street Journal’s Sune Engel Rasmussen and Raja Abdulrahim report: “Mr. Assad’s forces [moved] against areas north of Damascus outside regime control. Regime planes conducted at least 28 strikes in the countryside of Homs and Hama followed by artillery shelling … On Saturday, the regime took full control of Douma, the scene of the suspected chemical-weapons attack and the last rebel-held pocket of Eastern Ghouta, which had been under siege for five years.”

— Mike Pence traveled to the Summit of the Americas in Lima, where he struck tones of compassion toward refugees and described a “moral obligation” to help suffering people around the world. Jenna Johnson reports: “It’s a tone that’s starkly different from that of [Trump], who rarely expresses sympathy for people fleeing violence, poverty or oppression … Pence was even able to arrange a sit-down meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has publicly feuded with Trump over [the proposed border wall], a topic that Pence said they did not touch … Pence announced on Friday that the administration will spend another $16 million helping Venezuelan refugees living in Brazil and Colombia.” He pledged to do “everything in our power to provide sustenance and support to those who have fled this tyranny,” adding: “Under the Maduro regime, Venezuela is essentially a failed state. Failed states know no borders.”

— Meanwhile, Jon Lerner withdrew his name from consideration as Pence’s national security adviser after reports that Trump attempted to block his appointment. Lerner had done anti-Trump work for the Club for Growth during the 2016 campaign. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports: “According to a source familiar with the deliberations, Lerner, who currently serves as UN Secretary Nikki Haley’s deputy, sought to avoid drama: ‘Jon does not want to be a distraction. He’s done incredible work with Nikki Haley and it’s important to our country that this work continues.’”

THE SPECIAL COUNSEL:

The New York Times’s editorial board urged Republicans to protect Mueller’s investigation: “News reports point to a growing possibility that President Trump may act to cripple or shut down an investigation by the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies into his campaign and administration. Lawmakers need to be preparing now for that possibility because if and when it comes to pass, they will suddenly find themselves on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in their hands. Make no mistake: If Mr. Trump takes such drastic action, he will be striking at the foundation of the American government, attempting to set a precedent that a president, alone among American citizens, is above the law. … [I]f the president does move against the investigators, it will be up to Congress to affirm the rule of law, the separation of powers and the American constitutional order.”

— More than 400 former Justice Department officials signed a statement urging Congress to “forcefully respond” if Trump moves to fire Mueller and decrying the president’s string of attacks on the department. “It is up to the rest of us, and especially our elected representatives, to come to their defense and oppose any attempt by the President or others to improperly interfere in the Department’s work,” said the officials, who worked under administrations ranging as far back as Richard Nixon. “We are [deeply] disturbed by the attacks that have been levied against the good men and women of the Department … Not only is it an insult to their public service, but any attempt to corrupt or undermine the evenhanded application of the rule of law threatens the foundation of our Republic.” (Kristine Phillips)

— Paul Ryan said he still does not believe there is any need for legislation to protect Mueller. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” Ryan said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” after host Chuck Todd asked him directly whether he would bring such a bill to the floor if it passed the Senate. “I don’t think [Trump is] going to fire Mueller.”

TRUMP’S ACCUSERS:

— Adult-film star Stormy Daniels has turned to crowdfunding to help defray the legal costs of her lawsuit against Trump — and in one month collected $310,000 from thousands of small-dollar donors. Frances Stead Sellers reports: “Successful online drives such as Daniels’s do not necessarily speak to the merits of the accuser’s case. But they say a lot about the media strategies of their high-profile legal teams and their ability to exploit a new tool … to support expensive legal challenges. [Daniels’s attorney], has done nonstop television appearances about her case, dangling teasers of soon-to-come revelations. The adult actress is expected to appear Monday at a federal court hearing [for Cohen], and she is scheduled to appear next week on ‘The View’ … [Meanwhile], Daniels-related media blasts have kept cash rolling in — about $75,000 a week in small donations …

“Things did not go so well for Summer Zervos, a little-known restaurant hostess and the first of Trump’s female accusers[:] Her attorneys, who have kept Zervos tightly under wraps, organized an appeal [but ultimately raised just] $13,000 …. ‘The more your case is in the news, the more likely you are to raise money around it,’ said women’s rights attorney Lisa Bloom, who also donated to Daniels’s cause.”

— More than one-fifth of the Trump campaign’s spending this year has been on legal fees, according to a new FEC report. BuzzFeed News’s Tarini Parti reports: “The campaign’s legal consulting spending went to at least eight different firms and the Trump Corporation. The bulk of the spending, about $350,000, went to Jones Day, which has represented the campaign since the 2016 election, including any litigation related to it. Two others firms — Harding LLP and Larocca, Hornik, Rosen, Greenberg & Blaha, which are involved in the legal fight with [Stormy] Daniels — were paid a combined $280,000. … The campaign also spent about $125,000 at Trump businesses, including Trump International Hotel, Trump restaurants, and Trump Tower.”

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THE MIDTERMS:

— Why people hate politicians, continued: To win their primaries, more GOP candidates than ever are sucking up to Trump — when they’re privately critical and have previously spoken out against him. From Michael Scherer: “Among his qualifications for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Evan Jenkins wants West Virginia voters to know that he once attended a Christmas party with Donald Trump, flew with him on Air Force One and watched two movies in the president’s private theater at the White House. ‘He sat there right from beginning to end,’ Jenkins (R) said of the screenings of ‘12 Strong,’ a military thriller, and ‘The 15:17 to Paris,’ the recent Clint Eastwood flick. ‘I have a great working relationship with him.’ … And in Nevada, another Republican and former Trump foe, Sen. Dean Heller, has been praising the president’s policies in private meetings, while publicly saying that their relationship has ‘grown.’

In Arizona, all three of the Republican Senate candidates have made their support of Trump a central campaign message. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has claimed Trump as his reason for running, even claiming a sort of psychic connection to the president. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who was a critic of Trump last year, has quoted the president describing her as ‘my friend’ in her campaign ads. Former state senator Kelli Ward has … repeatedly attacked McSally for her past criticism.” (I wrote last month about how Trump loyalty has become a central theme of GOP campaign ads.)

— The GOP establishment has covertly launched attack ads on West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship, who recently served a year in prison for his role in a 2010 coal mine explosion. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports: “Late last week, a newly formed super PAC generically dubbed the ‘Mountain Families PAC’ began airing TV ads targeting Blankenship … The national party isn’t promoting its role in the group, but its fingerprints are all over it. The 30-second commercials, which the group is spending nearly $700,000 to air, accuse Blankenship’s company of contaminating drinking water by pumping ‘toxic coal slurry,’ even as the multimillionaire installed a piping system that pumped clean water to his mansion. … The assault comes amid rising fears from national Republicans that Blankenship is gaining traction ahead of the May 8 primary.”

— A former GOP megadonor has shifted his contributions to Democrats in the age of Trump. From the Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey: “Boston hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman lavished more than $7 million on Republican candidates and political committees during the Obama administration, using his fortune to help underwrite a GOP takeover of the federal government. … [But Klarman has] given roughly $222,000 since the 2016 election to 78 Democrats running for Congress … Klarman said he’s financing his new political donations using his share of the $1.5 trillion tax cut Trump signed into law late last year. ‘I received a tax cut I neither need nor want,’ said Klarman, who Forbes estimates is worth $1.5 billion. ‘I’m choosing to invest it to fight the administration’s flawed policies and to elect Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives.’”

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— Pegged to Tax Day, the House GOP-sanctioned American Action Network is launching a new $1 million ad buy to highlight the benefits of the GOP tax cuts. The spots target 30 congressional districts. “Next year, a simpler system will save us time and money,” a narrator in the ad says. “Thanks to the middle-class tax cuts … The average family will save $2,000 dollars.”

— But Republicans are struggling to convince voters of the tax cuts’ importance. From Bloomberg News’s Sahil Kapur: “After most individual taxpayers finish up their returns this week, all eyes will turn to what the tax code revamp means for next year’s filings and beyond. Part of the Republican party’s problem in selling the tax cuts is that the answer is murky for many. Variables like dependents and itemized deductions can complicate the picture, even though most — 65 percent — will see a tax cut in 2018. And even for voters who do see a cut, whether it’s enough to sway their decisions at the ballot box is far from clear.”

— Democrats’ advantage heading into the midterms is shrinking, according to the latest Post poll. Dan Balz and Scott Clement report: “With the Republicans’ House majority at risk, 47 percent of registered voters say they prefer the Democratic candidate in their district, while 43 percent favor the Republican. That four-point margin compares with a 12-point advantage Democrats held in January. Among a broader group of voting-age adults, the Democrats’ margin is 10 points, 50 percent to 40 percent. Republicans owe part of their improved standing to Trump’s thawing job ratings. The Post-ABC poll finds that 40 percent approve of the president, up slightly from 36 percent in January to his highest level of support since last April.”

— Joe Biden again declined to rule out the possibility of a 2020 presidential bid, saying Sunday that he expects to make a decision by year’s end. Mike DeBonis reports: “I’m really hoping that some other folks step up,” Biden said on MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” adding he is still struggling with the 2015 death of his son, Beau. “It takes time to come back … Look, no man has a right to go say, ‘Help me become president,’ unless I can look at you and say, ‘You’ve got my whole heart, my whole soul, all of my passion, all my attention.’ And I know I got to make that decision by, you know, by the end of this year.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

The Syria strikes caused this 2013 tweet to recirculate:

George W. Bush’s former press secretary cautioned against Trump’s use of “mission accomplished”:

From The Post’s book critic:

Senate Democrats questioned the strikes:

A CNN reporter made this point after the vice president expressed sympathy for Syrians:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders caught flak for this tweet:

From the former director of the Office of Government Ethics:

Sanders was forced to clarify the timing of the photo:

Another Democratic senator voiced opposition to Mike Pompeo’s nomination as secretary of state:

A former acting attorney general outlined the dangers of Trump firing Rod Rosenstein:

A Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee defended the DOJ:

Two prominent Republicans were seen together as the GOP gears up for a potential speakership battle, per an NPR host:

Los Angeles mayor and 2020 presidential hopeful Eric Garcetti traveled to Iowa:

A White House adviser joined Pence on his trip to Peru:

Twitter reflected on the legacy of Barbara Bush. From a Fox News host:

From Nancy Pelosi:

A New York Times reporter marked a historic anniversary in baseball:

A House Democrat representing Houston celebrated Beyonce’s performance at Coachella:

And Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) welcomed a new grandchild to the world:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

— New York Magazine, “Cynthia Nixon Has Already Won,” by Jessica Pressler: “[Instead] of playing a politician, Cynthia Nixon has decided to become one, a choice many have found confounding. The politerati couldn’t help but wonder: What was the meaning of this quixotic gambit? Was it a stunt, like Kid Rock running for Senate? Or a vanity play by an emboldened celebrity, a dangerous precursor to an Oprah — Bon Jovi 2020 ticket. But [since] Nixon has been on the campaign trail, she’s evolved into a different kind of figure, a liberal fairy godmother radiating the warmth and empathy missing from the current political landscape, not to mention from the standoffish personality of her opponent …” “In three weeks,” says political scientist Christina Greer, “what started as a kamikaze mission has turned into: Could this be a competitive primary?”

— New York Times, “‘They Eat Money’: How Mandela’s Political Heirs Grow Rich Off Corruption,” by Norimitsu Onishi and Selam Gebrekidan: “In the generation since apartheid ended in 1994, tens of billions of dollars in public funds — intended to develop the economy and improve the lives of black South Africans — have been siphoned off by leaders of the A.N.C., the very organization that had promised them a new, equal and just nation.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Trapped In The White House: Many Trump Aides Are Too ‘Toxic’ To Get Jobs,” from BuzzFeed News: “Trump administration officials looking to escape to the private sector are getting a rude awakening: No one wants to hire them. The leadership at a prominent, bipartisan Washington public affairs firm went as far as to make an active decision not to hire from the Trump White House because of the ‘reputational risk’ associated with it, a former White House official was recently told. In another case, [a former aide] … was explicitly told his affiliation with the Trump White House had been a problem for some at the company. Several sources said it has been especially hard for mid- and lower-level aides to find new jobs, but even some senior-level staffers are struggling …” “There’s a certain level of uncertainness around the toxicity,” said one leading D.C. consultant. “Generally, there aren’t a ton of jobs waiting for those people.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT

“Magazine editors turn blind eye to Melania,” from the New York Post: “Magazines are showing no love for Melania Trump. The internet was in a tizzy last week when actor James Woods pointed out via Twitter that the first lady hasn’t been a muse for the magazine industry since her husband, President Trump, took office. Woods tweeted: ‘If the Trumps were Democrats, Melania would be on every cover of every chic women’s magazine in the world every month.’ The tweet, which was accompanied by an old photo of the first lady sitting in a gilded chair in a pale blue strapless dress, struck a chord, garnering 62,000 likes, 20,000 retweets and 4,900 comments. During her tenure as first lady, Melania has only graced one magazine cover — Vanity Fair Mexico — in February 2017. At the time, the cover caused a commotion due to the president’s insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall … Regardless, not one American magazine has put the former model on its cover … ” 

DAYBOOK:

Trump will travel to Hialeah, Fla., where he will host a roundtable on the tax cuts. He will then spend the night at Mar-a-Lago.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

James Comey described his trip back to Washington after learning he was fired: “I drank red wine from a paper cup and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home.”

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

— Washingtonians could see afternoon showers and temperature highs only in the 50s today. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Widespread rain as we wake up this morning should continue for a few hours longer, before a more showery setup ensues for the midday and afternoon hours. However, feisty westerly winds will be with us throughout the day, blowing between 15 and 20 mph with occasional gusts to 25 or 30 mph. … It’s a good idea to bring along a jacket wherever you go, as the elevated wind speeds will make it feel like it’s in the 40s most of the day.”

— So much choking: The Capitals lost to the Blue Jackets in overtime (again) 5-4. (Mike Hume, Isabelle Khurshudyan and Roman Stubbs)

— The Nationals lost to the Rockies 6-5. (Jorge Castillo)

— Maryland’s GOP has zeroed in on one candidate seeking to replace Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.). From Paul Schwartzman: “The cluster of Democrats seeking to succeed [Delaney] includes a tycoon, two state lawmakers, a pediatrician, a retired economist and a retired intelligence officer. But only one candidate — state Del. Aruna Miller (Montgomery) — is drawing the attention of the state’s Republican Party organization, which in the past couple of weeks has sent mass mailings attacking her as weak on crime and immigration. … The timing of the Republican onslaught — more than two months before the June 26 Democratic primary — has caught the attention of Maryland’s political establishment and signals that the GOP views Miller as the greatest threat to the party recapturing the 6th District … ”

— Maryland’s largest teachers union endorsed the gubernatorial bid of Democrat Ben Jealous. (Ovetta Wiggins)

— D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D) received messages of support from conspiracy theorists after he expressed suspicion the Rothschilds control the weather. “You have just won the hearts of thousands of good people across the U.S. who have been working for years to hear any elected official speak public truth about controlled weather,” a man from the San Francisco Bay area wrote to White. (Fenit Nirappil)

— Two men were attacked early Sunday morning near the U Street Metro station by three assailants who yelled anti-gay slurs, according to the police, who are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. (Faiz Siddiqui)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

SNL lampooned Michael Cohen’s legal struggles and Laura Ingraham’s advertiser boycott:

John Oliver broke down corporate tax avoidance:

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Anti-war demonstrators protested against the Syria strikes at the White House:

The Post fact-checked John Boehner’s claim that U.S. jails have been filled with people arrested for possessing small amounts of pot:

Boston marked five years since the marathon bombings:

And Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) explained the significance of Jackie Robinson’s legacy after throwing out the first pitch at Nats Park:

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