Five big things from Trump’s head-spinning week

Donald Trump folds his arms

This week in Washington has distilled all the chaos, upheaval, drama and conflict of the first two years of the Donald Trump presidency down to its purest form.

It’s been a bungee jump from high to low, then careening everywhere in between – and it’s not altogether clear that it won’t end with the loud and final thud of an impact on the ground.

Here’s a look at the crises – plural – that have unfolded in the past few days.

Most, if not all, are of the president’s own making. Mr Trump campaigned as a disrupter, and this week has been disruption in the extreme.

The shutdown fight

At the end of last week it appeared that Congress was on a glide path toward avoiding a partial shutdown of the federal government.

Then, on Thursday, everything went haywire. After the White House had signalled it would support the stopgap funding measure, hard-core conservative media outlets and politicians demanded the president draw a line in the sand over building his much-promised border wall.

Mr Trump abruptly changed course, announcing that “any measure that funds the government must include border security”. The fact he’s stopped calling for a wall and instead asked for border security and “metal slats” – fencing – is a concession that might have meant something if it was made weeks ago, and not under the shadow of a shutdown.

The irony is that the warning was made at a signing ceremony for bipartisan farm legislation, during which the president touted another recently passed bill reforming the criminal justice system. Green shoots of inter-party co-operation appeared this week, only to be met with the herbicide of wall acrimony.

The House of Representatives seems solidly behind including wall funding in any bill. But the Senate, with only 51 Republicans and unified Democratic opposition, is well short of the 60 votes needed to agree to such a measure. And if enough House members change their mind, there’s always the chance that the president will veto a stopgap bill without any funding for the wall.

The dynamic changes considerably on 3 January, when Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats take over the House.

At that point, the door slams shut on wall funding ever being approved in the House. The Senate may very well acquiesce to a new wall-free spending bill and the president becomes the final roadblock.

Would he back down, giving the House Democrats an early win? That may be a bitter pill to swallow.

For Mr Trump, however, the pain he appears to fear from his supporters seems to outweigh in his mind the political discomfort from a shutdown.

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The great withdrawal

If Mr Trump’s pivot on budget funding was surprising, his unexpected announcement that he’s pulling the 2,000 US troops out of Syria – and reports of plans for thousands more coming home from Afghanistan – was an electric shock through the US foreign policy establishment.

The fact that the president, who campaigned in part on drawing down US involvement obligations abroad, might contemplate such a move is not unexpected. The manner in which the announcement was made, with little apparent consultation with senior government officials or US allies abroad, is the primary source of upheaval – and the cause for concern among even those who might otherwise support the decision.

Was Trump right to say ISIL is beaten?

Then came the exclamatory punctuation mark at the end of the drawdown drama. Defence Secretary James Mattis, perhaps the most universally respected member of Mr Trump’s Cabinet, announced he was resigning because of differences of opinion he has with the president. In his announcement, he offered full-throated support for the US alliance structure and a warning that the US must serve as a counterweight to authoritarian rivals.

Then came his parting shot.

“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he wrote.

It was one of the most direct suggestions of disapproval from any of Mr Trump’s ever-expanding list of former advisers and Cabinet secretaries.

All of this raises the question, why did the president act now? There has been some speculation that it may be tied the budget fight over the Mexican border wall. If people tell the president there’s not enough money, then he’ll reduce US commitments abroad. Others have suggested the move was a distraction in the midst of an unpleasant news cycle. Or perhaps it was a move to placate Turkey or – an evergreen explanation – Russia.

Whatever the reason, Mr Trump has roiled his supporters in the US Senate at a time when he needs them most. In the past, Republican politicians have managed to walk the line between offering tuts of disapproval for presidential actions they don’t like, while still voting lockstep for conservative policy priorities.

In the coming days, however, this straddling effort will be tested like never before.

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Mueller’s circling army

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Benjamin Wittes and Mikhaila Fogel compare Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation of possible Russian ties to the Trump presidential campaign to a siege on a walled city.

If the investigation is “a campaign of degradation over a substantial period of time”, this week brought a number of new volleys that could hasten the eventual collapse.

There was Michael Flynn’s sentencing fiasco, in which Mr Trump’s former national security adviser admitted in open court that he knowingly lied to the FBI and wasn’t tricked or trapped into it. The judge, Emmet Sullivan, then suggested he sold his country out.

Facing the prospect of an angry judge threatening jail time, Flynn’s lawyers asked for a sentencing delay – dangling the possibility of more co-operation by Flynn and guaranteeing this portion of the Mueller investigation will stretch on until at least March.

Apps on a smartphone

Meanwhile, the Senate released two investigations into Russian social media campaigns to influence the 2016 presidential election.

They indicated the scope of the attack was much wider than previously known. The efforts reached hundreds of millions of people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other services, engaging conservatives and discouraging key voting blocs on the left, all in an attempt to help Mr Trump’s presidential bid.

The president and his supporters have dismissed evidence of Russian meddling as blame-shifting by Democrats seeking an excuse for their 2016 defeat. With these reports, that becomes a more difficult case to make.

What’s still not known is if there are any direct links between the Russians and the Trump team. Rumours swirl of new Mueller indictments on the horizon, however, perhaps of Trump confidant Roger Stone, who had contacts with WikiLeaks, the group that released hacked Democratic documents.

Then there’s the NBC News report that Mr Mueller could release his findings and conclusions in mid-February – which, although it seems like an eternity in US politics these days, is just two months away.

The clock is ticking – providing a possible explanation for Mr Trump’s dyspeptic attitude of late.

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A crumbling foundation

There was evidence as early as 2016, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, that Donald Trump frequently used his family’s charitable foundation – funded in large part by donations from other people – to settle business lawsuits, buy baubles at auctions and, during the presidential campaign, advance his political interests.

Any of this could qualify as “self-dealing” and put the charity’s tax status at risk.

The controversies swirling around the foundation attracted the attention of the Democrat-run attorney general’s office in New York, which launched an investigation. On Tuesday, they negotiated the dismantling of the charity.

Mr Trump and his lawyers explained that they wanted this all along, and that the entire inquiry was the result of “sleazy Democrats”. But this is another dark cloud that won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Barbara Underwood, in a statement heralding the action, called the foundation “little more than a chequebook” for the Trumps, with activity that displayed “a shocking pattern of illegality”.

What’s more, she said, the state would continue to seek millions of dollars in back taxes and fines from the Trump Organization, and sanctions against the president and his three oldest children.

During the 2016 campaign, Mr Trump repeatedly criticised Hillary Clinton and her family’s much-larger operating foundation. Two years later, however, it’s the president’s charity that remains in the headlines.

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Dow heading down

Mr Trump has spent much of his presidency touting the seemingly endless ascent of the US stock market.

“The Stock Market just reached an All-Time High during my Administration for the 102nd Time, a presidential record, by far, for less than two years,” he tweeted in early October.

Politicians who hitch their star to the stock market, however, can be in for a bumpy ride. Since Mr Trump wrote that tweet, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen more than 4,300 points – a 16% decline.

Due to a combination of rising interest rates, the president’s trade wars, the impending government shutdown and indications of slower economic growth, the now long-in-the-tooth bull market may be coming to an end. December has seen the biggest market decline since the Great Depression and the largest drop in any month since 2009.

Larger economic indicators, such as GDP growth, unemployment and consumer confidence, are still strong. The current economic expansion is now entering its 13th year, however, and no one has yet discovered how to outwit the business cycle.

What goes up eventually comes down (at least a bit), and the timing may not be good for the president.

Comrade Trump: ‘I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law’

Cohen walked free from court – but will have to report to jail in March

US President Donald Trump has said he never directed his former private lawyer to break the law, a day after he was was sentenced to prison.

“He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.” Mr Trump tweeted of Michael Cohen, adding that he pleaded guilty “to embarrass the president”.

His comments came a day after Cohen received a three-year jail sentence for campaign finance and fraud crimes.

Cohen had blamed Mr Trump’s influence and “dirty deeds” at his sentencing.

In a series of tweets on Thursday, Mr Trump also insisted that he “did nothing wrong” in regards to campaign finance laws.

He said Cohen “probably was not guilty” of those campaign violations but pleaded guilty to benefit himself.

“As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!”

Cohen, 52, was sentenced on Wednesday and must report to prison by 6 March.

He had admitted to lying to Congress, campaign finance violations and tax evasion. In addition to the jail term, he was also ordered to forfeit nearly $2m (£1.6m).

He is the first of Mr Trump’s inner circle to be jailed over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The attorney, who once said he would take a bullet for the president, told Judge William Pauley that Mr Trump had caused him to “follow a path of darkness rather than light”.

Cohen said it was his “blind loyalty” to the president that led him to ignore his own “moral compass” and “cover up [Mr Trump’s] dirty deeds”.

Mr Trump, who calls Mr Mueller’s inquiry a “witch hunt”, has repeatedly criticised his former ally since he began co-operating with investigators.

Donald Trump dismissed Michael Cohen as a “weak person” and a liar

He told reporters last month that Cohen was “weak” and “not a very smart person”.

What are Cohen’s crimes?

The sentencing was related to two separate cases brought by the Southern District of New York and Special Counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Mr Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for his role in making hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with Mr Trump.

One of those payments was made by American Media Inc (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, to suppress a woman’s allegations of an affair with Mr Trump.

The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday it had reached a deal with AMI to forego prosecution as long as the company admitted it made the $150,000 payment “in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicise damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 election”.

The tabloid publisher has agreed to continue co-operating with investigators.

The president has acknowledged the payments despite denying the affairs, and called them a private transaction unrelated to his campaign.

Cohen’s other convictions for tax evasion and bank fraud charges are unrelated to the president.

The special counsel had charged Cohen on one count of lying to Congress after a plea deal given his co-operation with the Russia inquiry.

The ex-Trump ally admitted to making false statements to Congress about a Trump property deal in Moscow during the 2016 election.

Michael Cohen arrived for his sentencing with members of his familyMichael Cohen arrived for his sentencing with members of his family

Who else has been implicated?

In other Russia investigation developments, former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted to lying to the FBI about his talks with the Russian ambassador, has asked for leniency.

Flynn’s attorneys requested he serve no prison time as he has co-operated with the special counsel’s investigation from the start.

Last week, the special counsel’s team announced that they would not be pursuing jail time for Flynn as he provided “substantial” details regarding the Trump campaign team and Russian officials.

Cohen, Flynn and ex-Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort are among a number of the president’s aides being investigated by Mr Mueller’s team.

Mr Manafort – who has been convicted of fraud – had been co-operating with the special counsel’s inquiry.

But last Friday, Mr Mueller’s team released a memo alleging he had breached a plea agreement by lying to investigators.

Matthew Whitaker: Trump defends acting attorney general amid protest

Trump: ‘I didn’t speak to Whitaker’ about Russia probe

President Donald Trump has defended his new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, as opponents call for his recusal from the Russia investigation.

Mr Whitaker was named to replace former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was fired by Mr Trump on Wednesday.

Controversy arose over Mr Whitaker’s previous comments about ending the probe into alleged Russian meddling in favour of Mr Trump’s election in 2016.

As the top law enforcement official, Mr Whitaker could take over the inquiry.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia on behalf of the Department of Justice.

Currently, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is overseeing Mr Mueller’s investigation – a role he took on when Mr Sessions recused himself.

Critics have pointed to some of Mr Whitaker’s remarks on CNN last year on curtailing Mr Mueller’s investigation as reason to remove him from any oversight role.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Mr Trump called Mr Whitaker a “very well respected man” whose selection “was greeted with raves”, though he made sure to distance himself from his new appointee.

“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Mr Trump said while fielding questions of how he might influence the Russia investigation.

But the president has probably interacted with Mr Whitaker numerous times, US media pointed out, as he was Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.

“Making comments on shows doesn’t mean you’re unqualified,” Mr Trump added. “You didn’t have any problems with him when he worked for Sessions.”

Earlier this week, before the dust had even begun to settle on the results of the November mid-term elections, long-embattled Mr Sessions released a letter confirming he was out of a job.

“At your request,” Mr Sessions wrote to President Trump, “I am submitting my resignation.”

Minutes later, the president announced his replacement via Twitter: “We are pleased to announce that Matthew G Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well….”

The 48-year-old former American football star has long been seen as destined for a bigger role in the Trump administration, viewed favourably by the president as his “eyes and ears” in the department of justice.

Matthew WhitakerMatthew Whitaker is replacing his former boss, Jeff Sessions

Who is Matthew Whitaker?

Mr Whitaker is originally from Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines in central Iowa, the son of an elementary school teacher and a scoreboard salesman.

He became a football star in high school and was eventually inducted into the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame. He went on to play tight end in the Holiday Bowl and the Rose Bowl for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 1990s.

Whitaker graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law, and then went into practice as a lawyer, for a time as corporate counsel for a chain of grocery stores.

President George W Bush appointed him US Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, where he prosecuted white collar and drug trafficking crimes. He held that office from 2004 until 2009.

His wife Marci is a civil engineer, and the couple has three children.

Political life

Mr Whitaker first took a shot at public office in 2002 when he ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer of Iowa as a Republican. He ran for United States Senate in 2014, losing the party’s nomination to Republican Senator Joni Ernst.

In his campaigns, Mr Whitaker positioned himself as a fiscally conservative opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and said his political role models were Republican Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. He courted the anti-abortion, evangelical Christian vote, saying at one candidate’s forum that he would scrutinise nominees for federal judge to ensure they had a “biblical view of justice”.

He further built up his conservative credentials when he served as campaign co-chair for Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2012 and became the executive director of the conservative watchdog group, Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust in Washington DC.

He was hired as Sessions chief of staff in October 2017.

Whitaker participates in a US Department of Justice roundtable discussionWhitaker participates in a US Department of Justice roundtable discussion

From commentator to acting attorney general

Prior to joining Mr Sessions’ staff, Mr Whitaker was a conservative legal commentator for CNN, and penned several opinion pieces that may shed light on how he might approach his new role in the Justice Department, in particular when it comes to his possible oversight of the Russian election-meddling investigation lead by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

In July 2017, Mr Whitaker appeared on CNN and mused on possible ways that President Trump could crush the probe, which included the departure of Mr Sessions.

“I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Mr Whitaker said.

In August 2017, Mr Whitaker wrote a piece called “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far”. In it, Mr Whitaker argued that Mr Mueller had overstepped the boundaries of his inquiry when he began looking into the Trump family’s finances. He called this a “red line” that Mr Mueller should not cross, warning that it would render the investigation a “witch hunt” – a term that the president himself has become quite fond of.

“The Trump Organization’s business dealings are plainly not within the scope of the investigation, nor should they be,” Mr Whitaker wrote.

Speculation that Mr Whitaker would one day take a more central role at the Justice Department has been bubbling for months. A report in the Washington Post said that he spoke directly to Donald Trump as early as October about replacing his own boss, as the president continued to publicly grouse about Jeff Sessions’ handling of the Russia probe.

After a New York Times article reported that Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein had considered wearing a wire to monitor Trump in the early days of his presidency, Mr Whitaker was discussed as Mr Rosenstein’s possible replacement. Mr Rosenstein offered to resign but ultimately kept his job.

According to the Times, Mr Whitaker has used what could have been a tricky assignment as a bridge between his boss, the embattled Attorney General Sessions, and a hostile White House to ingratiate himself with the president.

CNN: Former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort Was Wiretapped

H07 wiretap

CNN is reporting investigators wiretapped Donald Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort both before and after the 2016 election, including during periods when Manafort spoke by phone with President Trump. CNN reports the FBI sought and won a FISA warrant from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2014 and later got a second warrant that extended at least into early this year. The FBI also reportedly conducted a search of a storage facility belonging to Manafort. He is a key figure in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and whether Trump officials colluded with Russian officials to sway the outcome.