The Memo: Trump World faces sea of troubles

Trump loyalists are worried after his former attorney Michael Cohen's testimony to Congress led Democrats to threaten more hearings and his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without an agreement.

None of those developments is ruinous in isolation. But Cohen's hearing in particular dramatized the power Democrats now hold as the majority party in the House of Representatives — power that they can use to block the president’s domestic legislation and pressure his inner circle to testify.

At best, Trump loyalists say, intense partisan firefights lie ahead.

“We are heading into the most vicious year in American politics since before the Civil War — and the Cohen hearing only reinforced that,” Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told The Hill.


Democrats already announced they will seek testimony from Allen Weisselberg, the longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer, whom Cohen cited as centrally involved in organizing hush-money payments to adult-film star Stormy Daniels.

Weisselberg, who has been with the Trump family since he began working for the president’s late father Fred Trump decades ago, could come under intense pressure to deliver any financial secrets.

Democrats may also seek to bring President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE’s adult children or son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner launching investment firm in move away from politics: report Washington Post calls on Democrats to subpoena Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Meadows for testimony on Jan. 6 Unsealed documents detail Trump and Biden efforts on reporter records MORE to Capitol Hill for testimony. 

On Friday afternoon, NBC News reported that the House Ways and Means Committee was preparing a request for Trump’s tax returns and were considering all means necessary, “including litigation,” to obtain them.

“All the unity talk has ended,” said one GOP consultant who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Cohen-type hearings will be a weekly occurrence from now on.”

These developments come against a backdrop dotted with other potential struggles. 

The end of the investigation led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE is said to be imminent. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are probing the president’s finances and his 2017 inauguration.

There are other sources of concern on the horizon too. The economy, though still strong overall, is slowing.


In the Real Clear Politics average on Friday evening, 44 percent of the nation approved of Trump’s job performance but 53.1 percent disapproved.

Overall, “there is no debate that the president is politically vulnerable, but he does have plenty of time to improve his chances for reelection over the next 21 or so months,” said one former Trump administration official, referring to the 2020 election.

Trump himself appeared aggravated by the ongoing probes on Twitter Friday. 

“Oh' I see! Now that the 2 year Russian Collusion case has fallen apart, there was no Collusion except bye [sic] Crooked Hillary and the Democrats, they say, 'gee, I have an idea, let’s look at Trump’s finances and every deal he has ever done,' " the president tweeted. 

Legal experts — and, in private, some people close to Trump — say that he is right to be worried about the probes by the Southern District of New York, an office long noted for its intensity and persistence.

“It’s very aggressive and they take pride in giving no quarter,” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general. “You could compare them to the Naval Academy or the Navy SEALs.”

Some supporters of the president insist that the dangers are exaggerated, not just by Democrats but by a media that they consider eager to see the president’s downfall.

Further hearings were “problematic only in the sense that it creates ‘news’ that is going to be sensationalized,” said Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s White House and a strong Trump backer. 

Blakeman complained that this week’s Cohen hearing “had everything to do with Trump as a businessman and very little to do with Trump as a president, even though their charge is oversight of government. [Democrats] are trying to stain the president by abusing their powers of oversight.”

But even Blakeman acknowledged that the president’s political capital would be affected by the outcome of the Mueller investigation. 

While a relatively innocuous report from Mueller could demoralize Democrats and leave Trump with the “wind at his back,” he said, a bad report would make Trump’s political life even more difficult.

Democrats, of course, believe that there are now rich pickings to be had in delving into Trump’s affairs far beyond the Russia-centric focus of the Muller investigation. 

Referring to Cohen’s testimony, Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHouse bill targets US passport backlog Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe Tlaib, Democrats slam GOP calls for border oversight to fight opioid crisis MORE (D-Va.) told the Washington Post earlier this week, “He set a very rich table. We’re now looking at a 10-course meal.”

But even some Republicans who are skeptical of Trump warned Democrats not to expect that the president’s approval ratings would take a serious hit, even amid this week’s drama.

Longtime Florida GOP consultant and Trump critic John "Mac" Stipanovich, said that the president’s base had been so loyal to him through so many furors, it seemed unlikely they would desert him now.

“We have become so inured to things so unimaginable a few years ago that it is going to take something truly extraordinary,” he said, to change the political landscape in a fundamental way. 

But Stipanovich also noted that Trump’s base was nowhere close to a majority of the electorate and that the president won in 2016 by eking out very narrow margins of victory in a few critical states.

That meant that even events that did not cause some major erosion in Trump’s base could still endanger his 2020 chances. And there are plenty of such dangers to go around.

“Anything could make a difference because the margins are so narrow,” Stipanovich said.

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