Donald Trump is playing hard to get. Asked yesterday at the White House whether he would meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller for an interview, Trump began back-pedalling on his previous and emphatic '100 per cent'. Now, Trump said, 'we’ll see what happens'. For good measure, he threw in a few of his favourite terms of opprobrium such as 'witch hunt’ and 'Democrat hoax'. And in a tweet he lambasted 'Sneaky Dianne Feinstein' and said it was high time for Republicans to 'take control’ of the Russia investigations.
Feinstein is a liberal grandee from California, whose putative sneakiness consisted of releasing a 300-page interview by the Senate Judiciary Committee with Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, the firm that compiled the controversial dossier on Trump’s Russia connections, real or imagined. 'People', Feinstein said, 'can make up their own minds' about the veracity of accusations about the dossier and the contents of the interview with Simpson. Simpson himself urged Congress to make his testimony public: writing in the New York Times, he and his Fusion partner Peter Fritsch complained, 'Republicans have refused to release full transcripts of our firm’s testimony, even as they selectively leak details to media outlets on the far right'.
Feinstein’s move amounted to retaliation for Senators Charles Grassley and Lindsey Graham lodging a criminal referral to the Justice Department for the former British spy Christopher Steele. What his crime exactly consisted of the Senators never said. Given that the FBI talks to anyone, including mobsters, for information about crimes and plots, the referral seems wholly bogus.
But the prolonged interview with Simpson certainly makes for fascinating reading. Simpson comes across as level-headed and patient and careful in assessing the evidence, such as it is. His testimony does not exactly bolster the Republican effort to depict the dossier as concocted out of thin air; rather, it indicates that Steele’s investigations were only a part of a broader effort to examine Trump’s business dealings abroad and that abundant evidence existed of his willingness to treat with some very unsavoury characters.
So far, Republicans have mainly been able to shield Trump by refusing to hold public hearings with administration or campaign officials. But it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Trump to avoid a meeting with Mueller. Right now, a new Quinnipiac poll has his approval rating at 36 per cent and a majority of the public distrusts him. This, mind you, at a moment when the economy is doing rather nicely. The thought in the back of Republican minds is simple: what happens to Trump and the party if a recession hits?
At the moment, Trump is boxed in both by his own party and the Russia investigations. He has mused about raising the gasoline tax to fund an infrastructure program, but congressional Republicans dismissed the idea. On Russia, he can send out all the lunatic tweets he wants, but Mueller has just expanded his investigation by adding Ryan Dickey, an expert on cyber crimes to his team. Nor is this all. With a looming government shutdown and a wave of senior House Republican retirements, Trump’s greatest peril is that Congress will flip to the Democrats in November 2018. Soon Feinstein’s unexpected move may come to look like the least of Trump’s troubles.