As his former campaign chairman stands trial in the Robert Mueller investigation, President Trump went off yesterday, distancing himself from Paul Manafort and calling for the entire probe to be shut down.
What was striking is that he asked Jeff Sessions to do it, even though the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation last year—a move that continues to anger the president.
"This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!" (No, I don’t know how the 13 angry Democrats became 17 either.)
In an interview yesterday, Rudy Giuliani told me that "no order followed or will follow" the president’s tweet, which were his "opinions," and that no one should be confused.
"He didn't say anything different than I've said" on the air, which is that "the investigation should be concluded," the president's lawyer said.
When I asked how Trump could even suggest that Sessions take action, since the attorney general has recused himself, Giuliani said: "I think he's talking more generic Justice Department," and that "it would have to be Rosenstein," the deputy attorney general, to take such action.
Trump knows full well that for Sessions to pull the plug on the Mueller operation would create an enormous political firestorm. He undoubtedly knows that for Sessions to take that step, after saying it would be unethical for him as a former campaign surrogate to oversee the Russia probe, would destroy the AG's credibility. So it's possible that Trump is just venting here, using his Twitter platform to try to discredit Mueller and his team.
White House officials have argued for a year that the media spend too much time on their Russia obsession while short-changing such developments as a European Union trade deal and 4.1 percent growth in the GDP.
That is often true—but the president fuels the coverage of the investigation with his frequent Twitter attacks. The same goes for Giuliani and his latest television blitz. Trump very much wants the former mayor out there, but that spawns endless cable segments debating what he said (such as denying a pre-meeting before the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer when no one was talking about whether there was one).
Giuliani told me in the interview that he did so while trying to talk the New York Times out of running such a story (which the paper never did). And then, he said, "I thought it would come out anyway in a less reputable publication, so I wanted to get it out first."
The Manafort trial is a classic case study. Of course it's big news that the man who ran Trump's campaign during a key period in 2016 is being tried for fraud and lying.
But the words "Trump" and "Russia" have not been mentioned in the Alexandria courtroom. The Manafort indictment has virtually nothing to do with the campaign. He's charged with not paying taxes on millions of dollars from Ukraine and defrauding banks once that money spigot was cut off—plus such crimes against nature as buying a $15,000 ostrich coat.
The president weighed in with his barely-knew-the-guy tweet: "Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation."
And there was this: "Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and 'Public Enemy Number One,' or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement - although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?" (Manafort is in jail because a judge ruled he violated the terms of his bail.)
Now it's true the Manafort trial (the first of two) is a test for Mueller, whose effort would be tarnished if he loses these cases. And critics can fairly question why Trump hired a veteran Washington lobbyist who turned out to be of questionable character.
And yet the Manafort trial is rather boring, with testimony about bank loans and tax documents, with the only real drama whether his former deputy Rick Gates—who pleaded guilty and is cooperating—will testify against him.
But with the president tweeting about Paul Manafort and Al Capone, he has shined a bright spotlight on the trial that journalists find impossible to ignore.