Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are among six current and former White House aides with whom special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is likely to seek interviews in his Russia investigation, as The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Ashley Parker report.
The fact that top Trump aides would be interviewed isn’t hugely surprising. The probe has gradually grown in scope in recent months, and given its apparent focus on President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, it seemed logical that his top spokesman and aide, among others, would be sought out for their versions of events.
But the subplots with Spicer and Priebus are particularly interesting.
Both are former Republican National Committee types—not longtime Trump aides—who joined the White House when the campaign was over. Both are also now former aides, having lasted just seven months. And perhaps most notably, both were practically tortured during their time in the White House, directly by Trump or apparently with his blessing.
Spicer resigned after Trump went against his and Priebus’s wishes by tapping Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. And from literally his first full day as White House press secretary—when Trump dispatched Spicer to deliver obvious falsehoods about Trump’s inauguration crowd—he seemed to put Spicer in about as many awkward situations as humanly possible. He even seemed to enjoy watching Spicer squirm and contort himself, remarking that he wouldn’t fire Spicer, because he got “great ratings” on TV.
Here’s a recap of the things Trump made Spicer defend that I put together when he resigned:
There was the inauguration crowds incident. There was the time he took issue with calling Trump’s travel ban a “ban,” despite the White House having repeatedly referred to it as such. There was the time he insisted Trump’s tweeting of the clearly misspelled word “covfefe” was actually intentional and “a small group of people know exactly what he meant.” There was the time he said Trump doesn’t have a bathrobe—only to find plenty of past photographic evidence of Trump’s affinity for them. There was the time he suggested the former head of Trump’s campaign “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” And on and on and on.
Oh, and that doesn’t even include when Spicer awkwardly explained that Trump had fired Comey at the recommendation of the Justice Department, which got the ball rolling on its own. Shortly thereafter, Trump blurted out in an NBC News interview that he was going to fire Comey regardless and cited the Russia investigation as being on his mind. You can bet this sequence will be a focus for investigators; it also happened to make Spicer look like a fool.
While Spicer’s torture was more public, Priebus got a heavy helping of it, too—particularly in the brief period when Scaramucci came on board, during which Priebus exited. Not only had Priebus opposed the move, but Scaramucci proceeded to call into CNN and publicly attack Priebus, accusing him of leaking information and challenging him to prove that he wasn’t. Trump apparently signed off on the appearance, with Scaramucci saying he had just spoken with the president before calling in.
Later that day, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza published that foul-mouthed interview with Scaramucci, in which Scaramucci called Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and accused him of “cock-blocking” Scaramucci’s hiring. He also acknowledged in the interview that he was going to send a suggestive tweet about Priebus being a leaker to mess with him.
And there were other examples, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait recapped:
“Now, the Washington Post reveals Trump ordered Priebus to kill a fly. (“As the fly continued to circle, Trump summoned his chief of staff and tasked him with killing the insect, according to someone familiar with the incident.”)
Priebus was apparently the most frequent target of Trump’s habitual bullying. The president “told associates that Priebus would make a good car salesman” and “mocked him for expressing excitement when he spotted his house from Air Force One, flying over Wisconsin,” reports Politico.”
None of this is to suggest either is bent on revenge or anything like that. And a witness is always compelled to tell the truth to investigators, so any lingering hard feelings toward the president may not even affect their responses. (We also don’t know exactly how those interviews will be conducted yet.)
But Trump is a man who isn’t afraid to needle, cajole and oftentimes embarrass those around him. He isn’t big on loyalty to others. And you have to wonder how big on loyalty that makes those around him. Investigators—and Trump—are about to get a taste of that.
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This appeared in Saturday’s Washington Post.
Thursday’s speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had been billed as a major policy address on Title IX enforcement, and the expectation was that she would immediately rescind Obama administration guidelineson how colleges and universities handle campus sexual assaults. Given this administration’s disregard for matters of civil rights, it seemed best to gird for the worst: full retreat. That DeVos instead opted for a deliberative approach, including public input about potential changes, was a welcome surprise. It should be encouraged by those who want a just handling of these fraught cases.
In remarks at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, DeVos said the Education Department would begin a notice and comment period to gather information and evidence to revamp federal guidelines dealing with campus sexual assault. A “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2011 fundamentally changed how colleges and universities respond to complaints of sexual misconduct by outlining the responsibilityof schools receiving federal funds to provide equal access to education under Title IX.
Being held accountable—with the threat of a loss of money—forced colleges and universities to finally confront the problem of sexual assault and other misconduct. They were obliged to investigate, rather than cover up, complaints and to offer protections to victims of sexual abuse. At the same time, legitimate questions have been raised about whether there was an overreach by the Obama administration in its prescriptions that resulted in imbalances and injustices. DeVos, while crediting the Obama administration for bringing the issue of campus sexual assaults “into the light of day,” blasted the current system as failing both victims and the accused and being too onerous for administrators.
Advocates for survivors of sexual violence seized on her criticism—in particular her concern about the need for due process for the accused—as a betrayal that backtracks on protections for victims. But DeVos was unequivocal in stating that there must be no tolerance for sexual misconduct and that universities and colleges have a responsibility to combat it.
She is not alone in seeing some problems with how the guidelines have been implemented, as she illustrated with stories from students—both survivors and those accused—about how the system failed them. In a detailed examination, the Atlantic’s Emily Yoffe argued that many remedies pushed on campuses “are unjust to men, infantilize women, and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the fight against sexual violence.” Groups such as the American Association of University Professors and the American College of Trial Lawyers have called for changes in the standard of proof used in campus disciplinary proceedings. Professors in the law schools at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and other institutionswrote an open letter about their concern over the absence of due process.
Given the Trump administration’s track record and some of DeVos’s dubious staff appointments, it’s understandable that there would be wariness about where the department might be headed on this critical issue. But DeVos promised to “seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective and fair system.” She shouldn’t be attacked for that but rather made to live up to it.