shadow

Trump has his narrative. This week US institutions pushed back.

Why We Wrote This

President Trump has seen his election as a mandate to recast politics in his image. Recent days show that other branches of the government and the press aren’t complying.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his wife, Lori Andrade, depart after his sentencing was delayed at US District Court in Washington on Dec. 18, 2018.

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The disbanding of the Trump Foundation. President Trump’s retreat after threatening to shut down the government. A federal judge’s outrage over former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s implication that the FBI had tricked him into lying. This week, various institutions of the US government jammed a stick into Mr. Trump’s unspooling narrative of a best-ever presidency and exposed the story’s exaggerations and flaws. The Flynn sentencing was particularly ominous for the White House. The president’s overarching strategy for dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has been to discredit Mr. Mueller and his team and thus undermine their possible conclusions. “Witch Hunt!” is among Trump’s most often repeated Twitter phrases. Federal District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan’s harsh rebuke of General Flynn showed what happens when such a public relations strategy gets exposed to the real world of the courts. It also underscored the seriousness of the Russia allegations and the methodical manner in which the legal system is plowing through them. “Flynn’s lawyers did this too-cute-by-half argument. I think that backfired,” says Andrew Wright, an investigations lawyer and research scholar at New York University.

President Trump, ever the salesman, pushes hard to depict events in ways most favorable to him. His presidency has been an unending narrative of the world as Mr. Trump sees it – or wishes others to see it – stitched out of his tweets, press statements edited by him, and his answers to shouted press questions as he pauses en route to a waiting Marine One.

But sometimes reality pushes back against the salesmanship. And this week, other institutions of the American government have pushed back as hard as they ever have, jamming a stick into Trump’s unspooling narrative of a best-ever presidency and exposing the story’s exaggerations and flaws.

The disbanding of Trump’s foundation. Trump’s retreat after threatening to shut down the government to force Congress to fund his border wall. A federal judge’s outrage over former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s implication that a devious FBI had tricked him into lying.

That last event might be particularly ominous for the White House. The president’s overarching strategy for dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has been to attempt to discredit Mr. Mueller and his team and thus undermine their possible conclusions. “Witch Hunt!” “No collusion!” Those are among Trump’s most often repeated Twitter phrases.

Federal District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan’s harsh rebuke of former Trump adviser Flynn showed what happens when such a public relations strategy gets exposed to the real world of the courts. At a sentencing hearing, General Flynn and his lawyers essentially tried to have it both ways. In a legal memo, Flynn asked for lenient treatment due to his cooperation with Mueller’s prosecutors – but also implied that the FBI had treated him unfairly. Judge Sullivan wasn’t having it. Under the judge’s questioning, Flynn admitted he’d known what he did was wrong, and he accepted responsibility for his actions.

The incident underscored the seriousness of the Russia allegations and the methodical manner in which the legal system is plowing through them.

“What happened is Flynn’s lawyers did this too-cute-by-half argument. I think that backfired,” says Andrew Wright, an investigations lawyer and research scholar at New York University.

Other institutions belittled by the president have demonstrated resilience in recent days. The press – perhaps Trump’s favorite target – is one.

That’s because reporters played a big role in the demise of the Trump Foundation. In particular, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold documented how it acted not as a normal charity but as an arm of the Trump business and campaign. It paid for personal legal settlements and made illegal political donations, for instance. It purchased portraits of Trump. Its largest outlay was to fix the fountain in front of a hotel Trump owned.

New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood accused it of “a shocking pattern of illegality.” New York will continue a lawsuit aimed at recovering restitution and preventing Trump or his children from serving on nonprofits’ boards. Meanwhile, under an agreement announced Tuesday, the charity will disband and contribute remaining assets to court-approved organizations. 

Congress is confronting the White House with a dose of reality as well. The situation remains fluid, but as of this writing the Senate appears poised to pass a short-term funding bill that will keep the government open until Feb. 8, when Democrats will control the House. The bill does not contain money for Trump’s border wall. Trump, who days ago was promising to shut down the government if Congress didn’t approve $5 billion in wall funding, has reportedly said he’ll sign the short-term measure.

“White House strategy on shutdown appears to be repeating that the president ‘is not going to back down’ as he, in fact, backs down” tweeted Politico reporter Eliana Johnson on Wednesday as the deal emerged.

As to the Flynn affair, it was widely depicted as a defeat for conservative commentators and others who had said that the independent-minded Judge Sullivan might just throw out Flynn’s guilty plea, shaking the Mueller investigation to the core. The reason? Alleged FBI misconduct. Flynn was entrapped into lying, his supporters argued, because agents didn’t tell him that lying to them was a crime and that he could have a lawyer present at their interview. 

In his sentencing memo, Flynn and his attorneys argued that he had been wronged by the aforementioned FBI moves and by the fact that agents didn’t tell him his answers weren’t consistent with what they already knew, allowing him a do-over for correction.

Instead of pitching the guilty plea out, Sullivan threw the book at Flynn. The judge professed “disgust” for Flynn’s actions and made him affirm that he knew he was guilty, knew well that you can’t lie to the FBI, and so forth. In the end, Flynn’s lawyers agreed to delay his sentencing, to give Flynn more time to prove his worth to the government as a cooperating witness.

Trump has tweeted in support of Flynn. Echoing some conservative commentators, Trump said that “the FBI said he didn’t lie” and that prosecutors “want to scare everybody into making up stories.”

Prior to the sentencing fireworks on Tuesday, Trump tweeted “Good luck in court today to General Michael Flynn.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, if anything, Sullivan seemed outraged by the leniency of Flynn’s plea deal, in which prosecutors agreed to ask for no jail time in return for his cooperation. He strongly hinted he was considering locking Flynn up for an undetermined period.

Sometimes judges do that to emphasize the gravity of offenses, says Mr. Wright, who is also a founding editor of Just Security.

“It’s about public trust – ‘I’ll give you something symbolic so everyone will notice,’ ” says Wright.

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