The Memo: Trump can turn page on book storm

For all the fire and the fury ignited in Washington this week by Michael Wolff’s book of the same name, the political landscape has been little changed.

The charges in the book, including the explosive detail that former chief strategist Stephen Bannon considered a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower “treasonous,” dominated political discussion. 

But the Trump White House has spent much of its lifetime enmeshed in controversies just as dramatic, and in some ways more substantive, than this. 

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While opponents of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE will find plenty to sustain their opinions in Wolff’s book — and in the White House’s incandescent reaction to it — Trump’s base will likely prove impervious to its revelations.

“I don’t know anyone who is going to read this and be shocked by anything that is in there,” said Dan Judy, a Republican strategist whose firm worked with Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Fla.) during the 2016 primaries. “Hardcore supporters of the president aren’t going to believe it. And people who think it’s true aren’t going to be surprised by it.”

When excerpts from the book first emerged, and Trump followed up with a statement excoriating Bannon for having “lost his mind,” there seemed a real chance that the strategist would turn his fire on the president via Breitbart, the news website he runs. A split in Trump’s populist base looked like a real possibility.

But it soon became apparent that Bannon’s influence has been seriously diminished, with less obvious downside to the president. A key Bannon benefactor, Rebekah Mercer, publicly rebuked him; candidates for office distanced themselves from him; and GOP opponents such as Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingFirst House Republican backs bill banning assault weapons The 9 House Republicans who support background checks Progressive gun control activist on NRA: 'Don't count them out' MORE (R-N.Y.) expressed glee at his demise.

Among some Republicans who don’t easily fall into pro- or anti-Bannon camps, there was a sense that the break with the former strategist could be beneficial for Trump.

“You’ve had the media basically be obsessed with Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonThe specter of Steve Bannon may loom over 2020 Trump campaign Sunday shows - Trump's Epstein conspiracy theory retweet grabs spotlight Steve Bannon: 'President Trump is not a racist' MORE and … the alt-right for the first year of [Trump’s] presidency, and now you have a very public departure. It is a real opportunity for Trump to put all this in the past and focus on governing,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. 

Robinson asserted that some media coverage of the people around Trump has obscured the fact that he won the Republican nomination under his own steam, and against the odds. Anyone who believes that Bannon or any other Svengali had “concocted a victory strategy” was “foolish,” Robinson added.

Still, if Trump’s appeal to his base has been resilient, the same is not true of the broader population. 

The president continues to be mired in low approval ratings. As of Friday evening, his job performance won the approval of only 40.4 percent of Americans and was given the thumbs-down by 55.9 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

His standing has risen modestly in recent weeks, perhaps as a consequence of the passage of tax legislation just before Christmas. 

The tax bill was Trump’s first major accomplishment in Congress and it comes against the backdrop of a robust economic performance that the president highlights at every opportunity.

Still, the fact that the economic tide has not lifted Trump’s poll ratings higher is testament to his long-standing divisiveness. He was the most personally unpopular candidate to win the presidency in the history of modern polling. 

The president also remains under a sizable cloud because of the investigation into allegations of collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia. 

The New York Times reported this week that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE discovered that Trump had prodded White House counsel Don McGahn to ask Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump admin erases key environmental enforcement tool DOJ should take action against China's Twitter propaganda Lewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel MORE not to recuse himself from the matter. That effort was unsuccessful.

The Times story also asserted that Trump had referenced the Russia allegations in the draft of a letter, later abandoned, to then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeySarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Barr predicts progressive prosecutors will lead to 'more crime, more victims' MORE. It further alleged that an aide to Sessions had sought dirt on Comey from a congressional staffer.

Independent legal experts say that those revelations, if true, do not necessarily provide proof of obstruction of justice on Trump’s part. But they do suggest a troubling pattern of behavior.

“Any criminal prosecution is ultimately going to turn on state of mind,” said Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general who is now a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. 

But, he added, “the revelations very clearly fit a pattern showing that the president does not understand what various agencies are for, or what they do. … The president seems to believe that the attorney general of the United States is his lawyer. The client of the attorney general of the United States is the American people. There is no question about that in anyone’s mind other than the president’s.”

For all the drama over Bannon and Wolff, it is the Russia cloud that looms largest, and most threateningly, over Trump’s presidency.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.