Was it just last week that Donald Trump was strutting confidently around the golf course at Mar-a-Lago, chatting incoherently with New York Times reporters about his big tax cut victory and assuring everyone that he had no worries about the Mueller investigation? He's was on top of the world. Then he went back to Washington and everything changed.
In the course of 24 hours Trump posted a dizzying number of provocative tweets that seemed to come out of nowhere. He jumped into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called for the prosecution and imprisonment of a top aide to Hillary Clinton along with former FBI Director James Comey, rebuked Pakistan out of the blue, went after the New York Times' new publisher, and took credit for the fact that there were no American airplane crashes in 2016. And, as you may have heard, he got into a nuclear "button" measuring contest with Kim Jong-un:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Trump suddenly seemed agitated and angry, looking for a fight. Word is that he was upset about his lawyers' shifting timelines for the Mueller case, but if he had a heads up about the firestorm that was about to hit the White House on Wednesday with the release of excerpts of Michael Wolff's book, Fire and Fury, it certainly didn't lift his mood.
The book features sensational observations by various players in the Trump administration ranging from crude, sexist comments by the president about women in the Trump orbit to the explosive charges by former campaign CEO and senior policy adviser Steve Bannon that animated the news all day on Wednesday.
Bannon had a lot to say to Wolff about everyone in the White House, which really shouldn't be all that surprising since he also spilled his guts to Joshua Green for his book Devil's Bargain and has often spoken frankly to Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair. He's a talker. In this book he says some things that were guaranteed to cause serious heartburn in the White House, not least of which is what he told Wolff sometime after the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 2016 was revealed in the New York Times last summer:
The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor -- with no lawyers. They didn't have any lawyers.
Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it's all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.
Bannon goes on to say that such a treasonous meeting should have taken place away from Trump Tower with people who could provide deniability to the campaign, after which you'd launder the information through the media. He added, "The chance that Don Jr did not walk these jumos up to his father's office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero."
Notice that he said "the chance," which I take to mean that he doesn't know for a fact whether this happened, just that it's the way such things worked in the campaign.
It has always seemed unlikely that Donald Trump Jr. didn't tell his father about the meeting, particularly since candidate Trump gave a speech the next day in which he said, "I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting." (He never delivered that speech and gave an anodyne foreign policy address instead.)
Trump was very unhappy with the Bannon quotes and released an angry statement saying that Bannon had "lost his mind" and was a liar. But keep in mind that Bannon told "60 Minutes" months ago that Trump's firing of Comey was "the biggest mistake in modern political history," so it's not as if this is the first time he's publicly condemned the president and members of his team. Perhaps saying that he thought Donald Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort committed treason by not notifying the FBI takes it to another level, but notions of Trump's tremendous "loyalty" to his family are overblown. (See this article in Vanity Fair about how Trump really treats Don Jr., if you doubt it.)
The real source of Trump's ire is likely something that hits him personally, which is truly the only thing he cares about. Bannon was quoted saying something else that plays into the current state of the Mueller investigation in a way that puts Trump in serious danger:
You realize where this is going. This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose [senior prosecutor Andrew] Weissman first and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f***ing Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner. ... It's as plain as a hair on your face. It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They're going to go right through that. They're going to roll those ... guys up and say play me or trade me.
Bannon doesn't say that he knows anything specific, just that he's seeing what other close observers are seeing. But it's likely to make Trump see red to hear his former confidant and chief strategist chattering about this with such confidence, especially since the media then blared it all day long.
On Tuesday night, before Trump posted his weird tweet about his "yuge" nuclear button, the New York Times had published an op-ed by the proprietors of Fusion GPS, the research firm that originally hired former British spy Christopher Steele, to look into Trump's ties to Russia. In order to clear their reputation, which is being smeared daily by Trump partisans in Congress, the Fusion GPS owners asked that the House Intelligence Committee release the transcript of their testimony, in which they said under oath that they did not believe the Steele dossier was the genesis of the Russia investigation.
More importantly, they also wrote that they had alerted the Intelligence Committee that it should look into Deutsche Bank, adding that they had found "widespread evidence that Mr. Trump and his organization had worked with a wide array of dubious Russians in arrangements that often raised questions about money laundering."
No doubt Trump did not enjoy hearing the words of his former close associate Steve Bannon echoing those claims all over television the next day. Bannon was right, after all. Mueller did choose the money-laundering expert Andrew Weissman for a reason, and Trump undoubtedly knows it. Until now the president has been hoping that the investigation would wind up quickly without getting into all those unpleasant financial questions from his past. That hope is fading and he's getting very worried.