Presidents learn quickly to enthuse about how much they love to get out of Washington, D.C., but President Trump becomes almost a different man entirely.
One day, Trump signed legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia — and taking away his ability to lift them unilaterally — in part because Congress wanted to punish Moscow for its interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“I … support making clear that America will not tolerate interference in our democratic process, and that we will side with our allies and friends against Russian subversion and destabilization,” Trump said in a statement issued by the White House when he signed the bill.
The administration’s objection to the law was not because it disputed whether Russia had interfered in the election, but over the principle of the independence of the executive branch. No mention of “witch hunts” or accusations that Democrats are sore losers after Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.
The next day, Trump traveled to a rally in Huntington, W.Va.
“The Russia story is a total fabrication,” he said. “It is just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics. That’s all it is.”
In the nation’s capital, Trump is boxed in: Congress has constrained his ability to deal with Russia. The Senate has approved a procedure that means Trump cannot make any appointments while its members are away from Washington until early September. That means he can’t quickly fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions or someone else and put his replacement right into the job without a confirmation hearing.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, has begun using a grand jury as his team investigates the Trump campaign. Members of Congress want to introduce legislation that would protect Mueller from being fired.
With those boundaries in place, the president is taking a new message to a national audience: They’re not just coming after me; they’re coming after you.
“They are trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want,” Trump said to his audience in West Virginia. “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, with support from its sibling the FSB, ran a campaign of “active measures” against the United States that began with cyberattacks in late 2015.
Trump went back and forth for months about whether he acknowledged that, but most recently has settled on a position that, yes, it happened — but the interference might have also been perpetrated by other countries.
He said he raised the issue with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a recent G-20 Summit in Germany.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also has acknowledged meeting with a Russian lawyer in New York last June following what was pitched to him as an offer of help for his father’s presidential campaign from the Russian government. And the White House has acknowledged that Trump had a hand in crafting Trump Jr.’s statement about the meeting, which claimed the session was about “adoptions.”
In D.C., the White House says it’s going to cooperate with Mueller and members of Congress. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has met with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as have other people involved in the multiple investigations.
For the national audience, however, Trump and his allies aren’t sitting still.
In West Virginia, the president defended himself by denying an accusation that no one made: He sarcastically asked whether there were any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or the other states he won.
“There never were,” he said in Huntington. “We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.”
Trump supporters have said they don’t believe the story about the Russian election interference in part because they knocked on doors or planted yard signs for Trump in key places — and didn’t see any foreigners around in the early days when he was a longshot candidate. Trump and Republicans also often point to American spies’ conclusion that there’s no evidence cyberattackers changed any actual votes.
Trump’s allies have another strategy at work at the same time. They’re attacking Mueller and the attorneys and investigators he has added to his team responsible for the DOJ Russia probe. Fox News host Sean Hannity, who recently met with Trump at the White House, has used a recent series of TV shows to call for investigations into Mueller or for Mueller to be fired outright.
Trump has welcomed such attacks. Also, a lawsuit this month alleged that he helped encourage a line of attack by Hannity involving a debunked story linking a murder victim in Washington, D.C., to WikiLeaks’ release of emails that embarrassed the Democratic National Committee. The White House denied that Trump played a role in that coverage.
If there is any synchronicity between Trump’s D.C. and national communications strategies, it might be this: the White House wants all this Mueller business to be over soon.
As White House attorney Ty Cobb told reporters, the administration “favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly.”