This could be another big week for President Trump. He faces a series of important legal and political events that could powerfully affect one way or another a presidency rocked by last Thursday’s dramatic public testimony from ex-FBI Director James Comey.
The context is crucial: Time is beginning to work against the White House. The July 4 congressional recess is approaching fast, and the GOP has yet to muscle big legislative wins for Mr. Trump through Congress. Meanwhile, members can see the outskirts of the 2018 mid-term elections looming on the horizon. Republican leaders are worried that if the president can’t reverse a slow slide in public opinion, they’ll lose the House.
Trump himself may see July 4 as a crucial break point. There are reports the president has told Chief of Staff Reince Priebus he has until the holiday to get the White House staff straightened out and end internal bickering – or else he’ll be fired.
Perhaps Washington’s biggest event over the next few days will be Tuesday’s testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – the same panel that heard from Mr. Comey.
Attorney General Sessions’s testimony will be public. That means that on live TV he’ll be asked to respond to a number of key questions raised by Comey’s testimony.
Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing, for instance. Why get rid of the former FBI chief? Trump has said it was due to the Russia investigation. Is that true? If so, why did Sessions take part? He’s recused himself from Justice Department matters dealing with the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Comey testified that he’d asked Sessions to intervene and act as a barrier between himself and the president, to maintain FBI independence. How did Sessions respond to that? Comey told the Senate panel that Sessions said nothing when the ex-FBI Director said to never leave him alone with Trump again. Is that so? (Sessions’ spokesman has denied this anecdote.)
Finally, Comey hinted to senators that there was some classified information bearing on Sessions’s recusal decision. Did the attorney general have further, unacknowledged meetings with Russian officials?
Sessions could undermine Comey’s public image with a forceful appearance. Trump has said Comey lied. If Sessions says the same thing, it could bolster his boss’s pushback against the former FBI head.
But the stakes are high, for Sessions as well as Comey (and Trump). Comey’s testimony was lengthy and detailed, and may be backed up by his contemporaneous memos and conversations with other Justice officials. It’s one thing for Sessions to defend the White House. It’s another thing to mislead Congress under oath.
Against this background, the White House this week must deal with further legal challenges to perceived ethical breaches by the president. In particular, Trump’s lawyers now need to respond to a lawsuit filed Monday by attorneys general for Maryland and the District of Columbia which alleges Trump has violated the Constitution by taking in millions of dollars in payments and other recompense from foreign governments since taking office.
At issue are the Constitution’s foreign and domestic emoluments clauses. In essence, they forbid high US officials from receiving benefits from foreign nations, lest they be lured to sell out America’s national interests.
The Maryland/DC lawsuit charges that Trump has not fully separated himself from his businesses, and foreign payments to his hotels and golf courses amount to such emoluments.
Trump has already defended himself against similar lawsuits filed by private groups by arguing that market-rate payments for ongoing businesses don’t qualify as, in essence, bribes.
But if a federal judge allows the lawsuit to continue, the political and legal damage could be considerable. Trump’s tax returns would be subject to legal discovery by the Democratic Maryland and DC attorneys general. Some Democrats, such as former Obama ethics lawyer Norm Eisen, feel that Trump is highly vulnerable to continued legal attacks on his relationship with Trump Inc. This lawsuit could validate this approach – or indicate that it’s an empty threat.
Travel ban on display – again
Meanwhile, this could be a big week for the president’s proposed travel ban.
Trump ordered the original ban on Jan. 27, his first week in the Oval Office. It was blocked by federal courts, as was a revised, narrower version.
On Monday the ban’s legal struggles were in full view again, as a second federal appeals court, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, rejected Trump’s effort to limit travel from a number of predominantly Muslim countries.
But soon the Supreme Court may be involved in this legal action. High court justices could decide as soon as this week whether to overrule the lower courts and allow the ban to take effect on a temporary basis, as well as whether to rule on the ban’s constitutional status in general.
The Trump team would likely trumpet even a temporary imposition of the ban as a big win for the administration’s approach. The stakes would be high, however: if the Supreme Court also rules the ban as unconstitutionally focused on religion, Trump would suffer an ultimate defeat on one of his signature issues from the 2016 campaign.