The Great White House Freak-Out

Donald Trump and two close associates freaked out after Jeff Sessions’ recusal. What are they afraid of?

Donald Trump speaks during a lunch with House and Senate leadership on Wednesday.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into President Donald Trump’s possible Russia connections. In the days that have followed, Trump, as well as two people involved with his presidential campaign, have completely freaked out. You can read what has happened a number of ways. The White House would like people to believe that the president is simply incensed at the continued derailment of his agenda by politically motivated Russia allegations. But Trump’s behavior, as well as the behavior of others implicated in the Russia story, is consistent with people who feel cornered and are lashing out. We still don’t know what—if anything—happened between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence, only that Trump and his associates seem to be melting down as new information trickles out.

First, consider how Trump lost his mind over Sessions, with multiple outlets describing him screaming at his senior staff. “Nobody has seen him that upset,” CNN reported. One explanation for this is that Trump was mad because of the bad press. But another is that with Sessions stepping aside, he’s lost a major line of defense against a possible probe. (On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into whether Sessions tried to improperly shield Trump before his recusal.)

By Saturday morning, Trump was certainly acting like someone who believes more damaging information is going to come out, tweeting incendiary accusations that President Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump tower” during the campaign. Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that there’s no evidence for this claim, which Trump apparently picked up from Breitbart. (As Stephen Hayes wrote in the Weekly Standard, “White House sources acknowledge that Trump had no idea whether the claims he was making were true when he made them.”) Right now, our politics are swirling with rumors about shady dealings and even treason on Trump’s part. Trump’s response to this is to embrace a conspiracy theory about Obama putting him under surveillance. This suggests, at least to me, that he believes his political opponents might know something. It also suggests that he’s trying to pre-emptively discredit whatever information comes out next, since any future revelations will now be taken by his base as proof of an Obama-engineered conspiracy against him.

Meanwhile, since Sessions’ recusal, two other people near the center of the alleged Trump/Russia nexus have been acting nuts. Informal Trump adviser Roger Stone had a Twitter meltdown when questioned about the alleged wiretapping as well as about his admitted backchannel communications with WikiLeaks. (WikiLeaks, of course, was the conduit for Democratic National Committee emails hacked, according to all American intelligence agencies, by the Russians.) Among Stone’s missives was a since-deleted Tweet to a feminist statistics professor that said, “Would enjoy crush u in court and forcing you to eat shit-you stupid ignorant ugly bitch!” (He also deleted a separate tweet repeating his admission that he had “back channel to Assange” and called her a “stupid stupid bitch.”)

To be fair, it’s not totally out of character for Stone to be vicious and vituperative. But he’s not the only Trump associate with potential Russia ties acting jumpy. On Thursday and Friday, former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, a businessman with extensive ties to Russia, appeared in two strange, stumbling cable TV interviews, first with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and then with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Speaking to Hayes, Page admitted to meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, something he’d previously denied. With both Hayes and Cooper, Page was preoccupied by his own sense of victimization: He complained to Cooper about being made “public enemy No. 1” as a result of Democratic allegations about Trump and Russia. In both interviews, he was squirrely and evasive; it’s hard to imagine why he agreed to appear on television in the first place. What’s clear is that he seemed panicked.

Page has been coming undone for a while now. Last month he sent a bizarre letter to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division claiming to be the victim of “hate crimes” by members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign who had linked him to Russian involvement in the Trump campaign. “[T]he actions by the Clinton regime and their associates may be among the most extreme examples of human rights violations observed during any election in U.S. history since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was similarly targeted for his anti-war views in the 1960’s,” Page wrote. Much of his letter was about what he viewed as “retaliatory” investigations against him by the Justice Department, which were only halted with the arrival of Sessions as attorney general. “[P]rior to the initial steps by the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions to begin bending the arc of history in a positive direction, the U.S. Department of Justice served as an accomplice in negatively helping to drive U.S. national security into the gutter last year,” he wrote. Now, Sessions will no longer be working on Trump and Russia, and Page feels the need to frantically defend himself on live television.

On Monday morning, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman sent out a series of tweets that, taken together, said this:

Despite Trump’s public insistence while at Mar-a-Lago that he will be proven right re wiretaps, he’s sounded less certain in private convos. Remember—Trump knows little about the mechanics of government, as well as separation of powers. He has assumed exec branch is not that dissimilar to how he ran Trump Tower, where he was known to tape calls etc.

The headline here is that we have a president who “knows little about the mechanics of government” and spreads wild conspiracy theories without regard for their veracity. As Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee that is investigating Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election, put it on Twitter on Monday: “We must accept possibility that @POTUS does not know fact from fiction, right from wrong. That wild claims are not strategic, but worse.” That’s the bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that if Trump looks completely unhinged, he also looks scared.