For President Trump, it was a week to forget.
As Trump embarked on his first foreign trip, he left behind a full week of scandals and a Russia investigation that increasingly has the White House under siege. Each day brought new revelations that had Democrats smelling blood in the water and Republicans thinking of abandoning ship — all of them Russia-related.
The damaging headlines kept coming as the week came to a close Friday, headlines that included the word “impeachment,” and which raised questions about what the political climate will be in Washington when Trump returns to the United States at the end of his nine-day trip.
It began on Monday, when there was a report that Trump shared “highly classified” intelligence with the Russians during an Oval Office meeting. The intel was obtained through a foreign partner, believed to be Israel, who had not authorized it to be passed to the Russians.
The White House, led by national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, pushed back on the idea that Trump carelessly blurted out the information. McMaster described it as “wholly appropriate” in the context of the conversation, and the administration stressed that at “no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”
But worries remained that Trump had violated protocols by sharing with the Russians. Though as president his actions were almost certainly legal, they may have disclosed information that would make it easy for Russia to reverse-engineer sources and methods. As late as Friday, Israel was reportedly unhappy with what Trump did.
Then on Tuesday came a report that Trump encouraged former FBI Director James Comey, whom the president abruptly fired last week, to ease up on the investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn. The source of that information? A memo written by Comey himself and leaked to the New York Times.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump supposedly said. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Trump’s intervention was an abuse of executive power at best, “obstruction of justice” at worst.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein blindsided the White House by appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation. While an escalation of the probe that takes it out of the president’s chain of command, Republicans were initially relieved to have a cooler head supervising things.
Trump initially responded with restraint, as the White House issued a careful statement. But then on Thursday, he lashed out, calling the whole Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” It was the second time in as many weeks that the president undercut the West Wing’s messaging on a contentious matter.
“The base sees things the same ways Trump does,” said a Republican strategist requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the president. “But it doesn’t matter if they are only 40 percent of the electorate.”
Instead of calming down as Trump flew to Saudi Arabia Friday, the week ended with a bang. First, there was a report that Trump yet again tied Comey’s firing to the Russia investigation, this time in a conversation with the Russians themselves.
“I just fired the head of the FBI,” Trump is quoted as saying. “He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Next came news that the Russia probe has reached into the White House, with someone currently serving emerging as a “person of interest” as opposed to former Trump associates like Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page. This was followed by a report that the White House was researching impeachment procedures.
The day was capped off by the announcement that Comey will testify in front of an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The Committee looks forward to receiving testimony from the former Director on his role in the development of the Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, and I am hopeful that he will clarify for the American people recent events that have been broadly reported in the media,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the panel’s chairman.
“I hope that former Director Comey’s testimony will help answer some of the questions that have arisen since Director Comey was so suddenly dismissed by the President,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s ranking member. “I also expect that Director Comey will be able to shed light on issues critical to this committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.”
There has been no known change in the underlying facts of whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Yet nearly every controversy that sprung up this week was a result of Trump’s words or actions, many of which would have been avoided by a more cautious president.
The Oval Office meeting with the Russian officials itself was something that might have been avoided given the cloud hanging over the White House and has now yielded two big, negative headlines.
Trump is watching his White House leak like a sieve and Republicans keeping waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“If he retreats inside the family bubble, that will only make it worse,” said a second Republican strategist requesting anonymity to discuss the president candidly. “Ivanka’s sole purpose inside the Trump administration is protecting the Trump family brand.”
She and her husband, fellow Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, joined the president on his international trip.
During the campaign, Trump weathered weeks that would have ended a more conventional politician’s career, only to win the presidential election in the end. After this week, however, one wonders how many political lives Trump has left.