WASHINGTON – The president’s plane had barely taken off for his first foreign trip when multiple political storms slammed into it Friday: One report in the New York Times, one in the Washington Post, another on CNN, and a press release from James Comey pointed at severe turbulence ahead for Donald Trump.
Things have become bad enough that White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures, CNN reported. It was an apparent effort to prepare for the still-distant possibility they will need to defend the president from a move to oust him.
Air Force One had just left for a nine-day trip when trouble struck.
It started at 3 p.m. when the Times published its latest scoop: the president told Russians in an Oval Office meeting that the former FBI director, Comey, was a “nut job”; that he’d felt pressure over the Russia affair; and firing Comey eased that pressure.
A Democratic member of Congress, Ted Lieu, drew an instant conclusion about the implications, tweeting: “This. Is. Obstruction. Of. Justice.”
Spokesman Sean Spicer did not dispute the facts of the report — only the interpretation. He told the Times that Trump was not talking about easing judicial pressure, but political pressure. He said the post-election scrutiny was making it hard to work with Russia.
Now Americans will hear from Comey.
In another news bomblet dropped on Friday afternoon, the turfed top-cop announced he will testify in an open hearing of the Senate intelligence committee at a date to be announced later this month.
That comes as investigations into Russian election-meddling are mushrooming into a new area, according to members of Congress briefed Friday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: whether White House officials have engaged in a cover-up.
The investigation grew with the firing of the FBI director, according to lawmakers. The firing was followed by assertions that Trump tried dissuading the FBI boss from pressing an investigation into his first national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
The bad news didn’t end there.
A couple of minutes after 3 p.m., the Washington Post followed up with a potentially even more problematic story: It said a current White House official had become a significant person of interest in the Russia-releated investigation, as the probe reaches into the highest levels of government.
“The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to (sources),” said the Post report, which added the FBI declined to comment.
Equally intriguing was the question of where these reports are coming from. The Times said its source was a U.S. official, reading from a document summarizing Trump’s meeting last week with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador.
The timing is especially damaging. Trump is on a nine-day visit to the Middle East and Europe, his first foreign trip as president. Most top White House staff are travelling with him, leaving few senior officials back in Washington to defend the president.
The content and timing suggest Trump has some enemies inside the U.S. government.
One hot topic of conversation in Washington these days is whether conservatives in town are preparing to abet his downfall — weary of the Trump-related drama and longing for the comparative normalcy of a Mike Pence presidency.
Already, since the Comey firing, congressional committees controlled by the GOP have become more aggressive in seeking documents and witnesses, planting potential seeds for trouble to grow later.
“I think most of them are ready to flip,” one Democratic congressional staffer said of his Republican colleagues this week. A Republican staffer concurred: “The tide seems to be changing in town, right?”
Both made the point that the slightest whiff of obstruction of justice, which grew more pungent with Comey’s firing and in remarks thereafter, is more serious than talk of previous Trump controversies related to collusion and conflicts of interest.
Another trouble spot for Trump has to do with finances.
Congressional committees have said they want to know more about the president’s businesses, and have requested documents from a Treasury Department’s money-laundering unit that fined a Trump casino $10 million in 2015 for persistent, wilful, and long-term violations of protocols designed to keep criminal cash from being laundered through casinos.
Additionally, a special counsel was appointed this week — the well-regarded former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller.
Nonetheless, Trump retains a powerful retinue of defenders.
Outside Washington, he has sky-high approval ratings — among Republican voters. He has also had the full-throated backing of conservative media. One example of that was the Breitbart News headline published instantly after the Times scoop Friday.
“New York Times collaborates with deep state to smear Trump again,” read the headline.
The support of the conservative base offers Trump a bit of a firewall, as congressional Republicans feel political pressure not to go too hard on their president. It’s unlikely too many, if any at all, would join the call from the few Democrats who have already demanded impeachment.
Democratic leaders themselves are trying to tamp down the impeachment talk for now. They argue that the priority should be to investigate the case, build one if there is one, and revisit the matter when appropriate.
“We’re going to learn some things in the process,” said prominent Democratic lawmaker Elijah Cummings.
“Will it lead to impeachment? I don’t know.”