Just normal chitchat between the FBI’s acting top cop and a president who explicitly asked James Comey for his “loyalty” and has been known to exclaim in frustration over Jeff Sessions’s failure to “protect” him from Russiagate, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” How’s an emperor supposed to function if he can’t count on his Praetorian Guard?

The most you can say in Trump’s defense here, I think, is that he doesn’t grasp that this is an inappropriate question to ask. The FBI works for the president, do they not? A boss is entitled to loyalty from his employees, is he not? This may be less a case of him observing an ethical red line and deliberately crossing it than not noticing the line at all, which ain’t much of a defense. Also, if this was an act of ignorance more so than a knowing transgression, how to explain POTUS asking other cabinet officers to leave the room before he allegedly asked Comey to go easy on Mike Flynn last year? He may have a better sense of where the red lines are than we give him credit for.

The two men exchanged pleasantries, but before long, Trump, according to several current and former U.S. officials, asked Andrew McCabe a pointed question: Whom did he vote for in the 2016 election?…

Trump, the officials said, also vented his anger at McCabe over the several hundred thousand dollars in donations that his wife, a Democrat, received for her failed 2015 Virginia state Senate bid from a political action committee controlled by a close friend of Hillary Clinton…

McCabe, who has spent more than two decades at the bureau, found the conversation with Trump “disturbing,” said one former U.S. official. Inside the FBI, officials familiar with the exchange expressed frustration that a civil servant — even a very senior agent in the No. 2 position — would be asked how he voted and criticized for his wife’s political leanings by the president.

McCabe allegedly told Trump that he didn’t vote in 2016. The conversation is reportedly “of interest” to Robert Mueller. One obvious wrinkle: If Trump knew that it was wrong to ask McCabe who he voted for and he *already* suspected McCabe of being a disloyal Democratic hack due to the donations to McCabe’s wife, why did he think this conversation might remain a secret? He may have felt safe asking Comey for “loyalty” because Comey had, after all, inadvertently done Trump a gigantic favor in the final weeks of the campaign by releasing his letter about Emailgate. POTUS might have believed, however naively, that Comey would have kept the loyalty question secret. He had no reason to think McCabe would. So why did he ask? And why did he leave him in place as acting director if he was so bothered by his partisan leanings?

I assume this leak is retaliation by the FBI and its allies for the beating the Bureau has taken in right-wing media lately over the Strzok texts and the mysterious Nunes memo. It wasn’t just WaPo that was handed this juicy detail; the Times got it too, and even claims that a “White House official confirmed Tuesday night that Mr. Trump had asked the question” about how McCabe voted. Either McCabe himself or other FBI personnel may have decided that they’re tired of having their integrity attacked and are going to fight back by asserting that Trump had more of a political grudge against the Bureau than it supposedly had against him. The scoop from Axios a few days ago about Chris Wray threatening to resign if Trump and Sessions didn’t stop pestering him to fire McCabe is along the same lines. Wray allegedly took a stand for DOJ independence under improper political pressure. The two sides are now in a war to see who can do more to discredit the other — a perfectly healthy relationship between the White House and federal law enforcement.

Here’s Ronna McDaniel somehow managing to say with a straight face that the “How did you vote?” question was just Trump making idle conversation, a display of cronyism so heroic that I have to believe she’s now in line for a top White House job after she leaves the RNC.