- ArLuther Lee
- Karen Tumulty The Washington Post
Donald Trump's young presidency entered a new dimension of surreality on Friday, with his 315th day in office delivering both his greatest achievement to date and his darkest omen of peril ahead.
At the very moment the Senate was poised to pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill — a big step toward Trump's first major legislative victory — word came that his former National Security adviser, Michael Flynn, had pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI.
The development was read across Washington to mean that Special Counsel Robert Mueller III likely has a bigger target in his sights, and that Flynn has agreed to provide the evidence that could help him make the case.
Adding to that speculation was Flynn's stipulation in court documents that a "very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team" directed Flynn to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia. According to court records and people familiar with the contacts, that was a reference to Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and close adviser.
Like a Greek chorus appearing from the wings came a tweet by James Comey, the FBI director fired last February after Trump allegedly asked Comey to let his former national security adviser off the hook.
"But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," Comey wrote, citing words of the Old Testament prophet Amos that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Within Trump's orbit, there was concern Friday about how the president will react to Flynn's plea agreement, with what one adviser worried there would be "a full freakout."
Instead, Republicans hope Trump will concentrate on a badly needed victory on taxes, and help them turn it into momentum as they head into next year's midterm elections.
"The enactment of a comprehensive overhaul — complete with a lower corporate tax rate - will IGNITE our ECONOMY with levels of GROWTH not SEEN IN GENERATIONS . . .," the president tweeted as the bill moved toward Senate passage, after which it must be reconciled with a measure already approved by the House.
Their progress on the tax legislation comes after they failed to deliver on a signature promise to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, although the tax bill goes partway with a provision that eliminates the law's requirement that individuals buy health insurance. The repeal would leave an estimated 13 million more people uninsured.
Things at the White House on Friday were tightly buttoned up. Officials abruptly canceled a photo session with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj that might have provided reporters an opportunity to ask Trump questions about the Flynn news.
Long-established rituals of the holiday season proceeded, however, among them an annual reception for the news media that the president regularly pummels. Trump's uncharacteristically perfunctory remarks were declared off the record.
Flynn's plea was an especially heavy blow to the president, who had been telling friends for weeks that his "brilliant" legal team was confident that the investigation was wrapping up and that Christmas would bring the gift he wanted most — a letter of exoneration.
"He wasn't worried about it," said one person who heard from Trump during a Thanksgiving weekend spent at his beloved Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Another associate, however, discerned that anxiety was still tickling somewhere in the back of Trump's mind, when the president made a speech at a Coast Guard station Thanksgiving morning.
The hint was a seeming non sequitur to a point he was making about military equipment sales overseas: "You never know about an ally. An ally can turn. You're going to find that out."
And as Air Force One was preparing to bring Trump back to Washington on Sunday, he tweeted: "Since the first day I took office, all you hear is the phony Democrat excuse for losing the election, Russia, Russia, Russia. Despite this I have the economy booming and have possibly done more than any 10 month President. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
Over and over again in his career, Trump has dealt with bad developments by proclaiming something else to be true. He has insisted that those around him do the same — or at a minimum, put a hygienic distance between the president and reality.
On Friday, Trump lawyer Ty Cobb described Flynn as "a former National Security Advisor at the White House for 25 days during the Trump Administration, and a former Obama administration official."
However, Flynn had been a fixture on Trump's 2016 campaign from its earliest days, and was given a prominent speaking role at the GOP convention in Detroit, where he led the crowd in chants of "lock her up" against Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
"If I did a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today!" Flynn said of Clinton, in a declaration now heavy with irony.
Before the inauguration, Obama reportedly warned his successor not to hire Flynn, who in 2014 had been ousted as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency after a stormy tenure.
Flynn lasted less than a month as national security adviser, resigning in February after revelations that he had had potentially illegal contact with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
But Trump continued to defend him, saying at a news conference the day after Flynn's departure: "General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media - as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly."
Trump has reached a delicate moment that would seem to call for discipline and focus. "The really smart presidents just float above it," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.
When things were going roughly for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he would disappear — for instance, taking a 24-day cruise to the Galapagos during the recession and rocky midterm election season in 1938. At low points, Ronald Reagan would simply turn off the television and quit reading the newspaper until things turned around.
It is hard, however, to imagine Trump doing that. If anything, pressure seems to make him even more obsessive about everything that is said about him in the media or by his critics. And the timing of Flynn's plea on the very day that the tax bill moved out of the Senate may well feed his penchant for conspiracy theories. And Trump has long had difficulties letting go of grievances.
Moreover, the convergence of positive and negative developments comes at the end of a week in which his behavior has been outside the norm, even by his standards.
He disseminated on social media three inflammatory, unverified anti-Muslim videos produced by an ultranationalist British fringe group, drawing a rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump replied to May on Twitter: "Don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!"
At a ceremony honoring Navajo heroes from World War II, he interrupted his tribute to take a jab at one of his favorite antagonists, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: "We have a representative in Congress who has been here a long time . . . longer than you — they call her Pocahontas!"
His comment was a reference to a controversy that occurred during her 2012 Senate campaign over the fact that she claims Native American heritage but cannot document it.
And on Friday Trump denied reports, confirmed by his own advisers, that he is readying plans to get rid of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Trump tweeted: "The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon — FAKE NEWS! He's not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!"
Brinkley said of Trump: "He has no Zen mode. He's simply a person marching on roads of bones in warrior mode."