President Donald Trump has had impure thoughts about special counsel Robert Mueller.
That much, we know. The New York Times reported last week that Trump asked White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special counsel. When McGahn resisted, Trump backed off and left Mueller in place.
Talking their clients out of bad ideas — especially impulsive clients likely to blunder into gross mistakes — is what lawyers are supposed to do.
The Trump- Mueller episode is like the “Saturday Night Massacre” if Richard Nixon had merely thought about firing Archibald Cox, then got dissuaded by his advisers and, under advice of counsel, began cooperating with the Watergate special counsel.
Is it more meaningful that Trump wanted to fire Mueller, or that the special counsel’s work has continued apace for the past six months, with indictments, guilty pleas and extensive interviews of White House officials? Surely it is the latter, but Trump’s critics argue that his withdrawn directive establishes motive in a prospective obstruction-of-justice case.
What it establishes is what we already knew: Trump hates the investigation and everyone associated with it. He considers the FBI officials who have been central to the probe politically compromised hatchet men. He disdains his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the matter, and has no use for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, either.
We don’t need an investigation to know any of this, because Trump advertises it all the time. What else is his Twitter feed for?
What we don’t know, at least with certainty, is what’s behind Trump’s animus? It’s one thing if he hatched a high-level conspiracy with the Russians during the election that he’s ham-handedly trying to cover up; it is another if he knows there was no such conspiracy and believes the investigation is, as he repeatedly says, “a witch hunt.”
This is why it makes no sense for Democrats and the press to blow right by collusion — compelling evidence of which has not yet emerged — to obsess with alleged obstruction instead. If there was no collusion, it is doubtful that Trump has the corrupt motive necessary to make an impeachable obstruction-of-justice case against him.
Absent collusion (or some other sinister secret), Trump is guilty of raging against an investigation that, at the end of the day, really is built on sand. In which case, it’d be better if Trump, secure in his ultimate vindication, lowered the temperature around the investigation. But the scorpion is going to sting the frog — especially if the frog is getting round-the-clock cable coverage.
One of the counts against Trump is that he told Lester Holt of NBC News that he fired FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. This isn’t quite right. “I said, you know,” Trump explained to Holt, “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” Then, he went on to say he was happy for the investigation to continue.
The thrust of the interview accords with Trump’s conversations with Comey. The FBI director repeatedly told the president that he himself wasn’t under investigation. Trump badgered Comey about getting this out. At the same time, Trump stipulated that he was fine with a probe of any “satellites” of his suspected of wrongdoing. The picture is of a president desperate to remove an unwarranted cloud around his presidency, rather than a president shuttering an investigation at all costs.
It is certainly true that Trump has not, if he ever will, made the transition from thinking like the owner of a family business to thinking like a president entrusted with the care of our institutions.
If Trump had his druthers, he’d probably appoint his personal fixer Michael Cohen his attorney general and run the Department of Justice like an arm of The Trump Organization. But there are all sorts of political and institutional constraints to acting on these impulses, including a White House counsel willing to say “No.”