WASHINGTON — President Trump began Monday as he has started so many other presidential mornings — by unleashing a blistering Twitter attack on critics who suggested his 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians.
By the afternoon the director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey, had systematically demolished his arguments in a remarkable public takedown of a sitting president. Even a close ally of Mr. Trump, Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the House Intelligence Committee chairman, conceded that “a gray cloud” of suspicion now hung over the White House by the end of the day’s hearings.
The testimony of Mr. Comey and that of Adm. Michael S. Rogers, his National Security Agency counterpart, will most likely enervate and distract Mr. Trump’s administration for weeks, if not longer, overshadowing good news, like the impressive debut of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, his Supreme Court nominee, on the first day of his confirmation hearings Monday.
But it’s the obsessiveness and ferocity of Mr. Trump’s pushback against the Russian allegations, often untethered from fact or tact, that is making an uncertain situation worse.
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Mr. Trump’s allies have begun to wonder if his need for self-expression, often on social media, will exceed his instinct for self-preservation, with disastrous results both for the president and for a party whose fate is now tightly tied to his.
“The tweets make it much more difficult for us as we try to build a case against these leakers,” said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee. “We always have to be answering questions about the tweets — it puts us on defense all the time when we could be building a case for the president.”
And Mr. Trump’s fixation on fighting is undermining his credibility at a time when he needs to toggle from go-it-alone executive action to collaborative congressional action on ambitious health care, budget and infrastructure legislation.
“I don’t always like what the president is saying,” the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, told The Washington Examiner last month. “I do think he frequently, by wading into other matters, takes attention away” from “the very substantial things we’re already accomplishing.”
A Gallup poll released Monday found Mr. Trump with an abysmal 37 percent approval rating; other recent polls place his popularity in the mid-40s, but even that level is among the lowest ever recorded for a president this early in his first term.
Over the past several weeks, Republicans in Congress and members of their staffs have privately complained that Mr. Trump’s Twitter comment on March 4 — the one where he called Barack Obama “sick” and suggested that the former president had ordered a “tapp” on his phone — had done more to undermine anything he’s done as president because it called into question his seriousness about governing.
The problem, from the perspective of Mr. Trump’s beleaguered political fire brigade, is that the president insists on dealing with crises by creating new ones — so surrogates, repeating talking points the president himself ignores, say they often feel like human shields.
Within the White House, a number of Mr. Trump’s advisers — including the press secretary, Sean Spicer, who has himself repeated unsubstantiated claims of British spying on Mr. Trump — have told allies that Mr. Trump’s Twitter habits are making their jobs harder, said administration officials interviewed over the past week. Mr. Spicer said he has no problem with his boss’s tweeting. “It’s just not true. I have not commented on the tweets to anyone including my wife,” he said in an email.
Most politicians, perhaps any other politician, would have backed away from the Russia story, and left the defense to surrogates or unexpected validators like Mike Morrell, the former acting director of the C.I.A., who said last week that “there is smoke, but there is no fire at all” in the allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
But this president, a proponent of do-it-yourself crisis communications with boundless self-confidence in his capacity to shape the story, seems determined to hug his Russian hand grenade.
Monday morning began not with praise of Judge Gorsuch — or an exhortation of House Republicans to quickly pass a revamped Obamacare repeal — but with six protective-crouch tweets about the Russia investigation.
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!” Mr. Trump wrote shortly after dawn, using his private Twitter account.
Then, a few minutes later: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”Read More...
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