Trump may well prefer for Mueller to play out the string.
For much of the past year, speculation has swirled that President Trump will fire Robert Mueller, the independent counsel investigating supposed links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Interestingly, the likelihood that Trump fires Mueller is an area of rare bipartisan agreement in Washington—though of course, the speculated reasons why he might do so vary greatly.
Democrats think Trump may or will fire Mueller as a last-ditch attempt to derail an investigation closing in on him. Republican supporters of the president think Trump might or should fire Mueller because his probe has become exactly the “witch hunt” the president often tweets that it is.
Republican never-Trumpers and neutrals by and large take the view that the investigation must run its course even (or perhaps especially) if there was “no collusion” with Russia, as Trump insists on a regular basis. Disrupting the investigation would worsen the president’s position. But such is their generally low opinion of Trump that many of them, too, regard it as likely that the president will fire Mueller despite his own best interests in letting the investigation play out.
Hence the subsidiary ballyhoo about how to “protect” Mueller: by insisting that doing away with the investigation would itself be grounds for impeachment, or by congressional enactment of some statutory limitation on the president’s authority—a proposition of highly dubious constitutionality even in the event that Congress could override a Trump veto of such legislation.
Let’s acknowledge that many Republicans want Trump to defenestrate Mueller. But let’s acknowledge that many Democrats would also love for him to do exactly that: for the paradoxical sake of ramping up bipartisan support for the investigation, perhaps culminating in enough GOP support for impeachment among the current neutrals and never-Trumpers, who for all their never-Trumping have mostly refrained from calling for impeachment as they await further details from Mueller’s investigation.
Hmm. It seems that the single person in Washington least convinced the president will or should fire Mueller may be none other than Donald J. Trump—a conclusion borne out by the fact that, ahem, Trump has not fired Mueller.
Well, some have reported, he has thought about it and has even told aides to do it, only to be talked out of it. Yet the president’s frustration with the probe is manifest, and he is well known for venting to aides and advisers. Threatening to fire Mueller is not equal to firing Mueller, nor is it clear that the proper inference to be drawn from such reports is that Trump is considering firing Mueller; rather, it may be that Trump has considered and rejected firing Mueller.
Why would that be? A conventional answer: because Trump fears the consequences of doing so. He knows that the political fallout from going nuclear could take him out as well.
Maybe. But there are good reasons to think that’s not the correct answer. First, Trump may well believe that he could survive the fallout. Would enough House Republicans really turn on him to make an impeachment vote a real possibility? In congressional districts that Trump carried and where he remains in many cases very popular? Or in more marginal districts on the eve of an election in which GOP turnout is critical?
Second, firing Mueller wouldn’t end the investigation. If Trump believed at the time that firing FBI director James Comey would end the matter, he has learned he was mistaken. Getting rid of Mueller would remove a personality, but not the investigative mechanisms currently in place.
Finally, and most important, leaving Mueller in place at this point may serve Trump’s interests not merely in the sense of averting negative consequences but also in a positive sense.
Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities underlying the current state of affairs. Either Trump is speaking the truth when he says “no collusion” or he is lying. To break that down further, we need to ask what he means when he says “no collusion.” He seems to be referring to his campaign as a whole, but in truth, he can’t really know whether those former associates of his who got caught in Mueller’s net “colluded” (whatever that means) or whether others hitherto unknown did. In this respect, it must be gratifying to Trump himself that the evidence surfaced so far amounts to little. To put it baldly, he can’t really know what all the actors in his campaign have been up to.
Thus “no collusion” covers two contingencies: The first is that there is no evidence of any collusion by anyone on or close to the campaign (at least nothing worse than Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort meeting with a couple of shady Russians in Trump Tower in June 2016 in the quickly frustrated anticipation of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton). If Mueller produces no evidence to the contrary, the blanket denial can stand as having referred to the entire campaign. But if Mueller does find such evidence, Trump can readily pivot to the position that by “no collusion” he meant on his own part. Those who think the actions of former Trump campaign figures such as Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn already constitute sufficient evidence of collusion or intent to collude have yet to come to grips with the extent to which what matters is what Trump knew and did.
So “no collusion” constitutes, above all, his emphatic denial of personal wrongdoing. And indeed, his pique with Comey seems to have originated with Comey’s unwillingness to say publicly what Comey told Trump privately: that Trump himself was not under investigation. Likewise the hay Trump spokespersons made of the language in the most recent Mueller indictments—that the campaign did not “knowingly” have any inappropriate contacts with Russians. While evidence of wrongdoing by those close to him during the campaign would be damaging, Trump can likely survive it if his personal “no collusion” denial still stands.
Under the proper circumstances, that is. Some look at Trump and see a man who is acting like he is guilty of something. By and large, however, these are people whose minds were made up against Trump long ago. It is at least equally plausible, given his mercurial personality, that he is acting exactly as a Donald Trump blameless on the underlying question of collusion would act.
In either case, what Trump has understood is that his political opponents are trying to drive him out of the White House, and for them, the Mueller investigation is neither more nor less than a means to that end. Some of the opposition motivation is sheer personal disgust, some of it the pursuit of the kind of partisan advantage
It’s impossible to speculate with any credibility on what Mueller himself thinks of this whole project. Does he see his job as bringing down a man so many of Mueller’s most vocal supporters believe is unfit ever to have ascended to the Oval Office? Or would Mueller be content to de-escalate to the point at which he poses no threat to Trump’s presidency? One way or the other, it is quite plausible to say that Trump has reached the conclusion that it’s either Mueller or Trump—that is, this epic political confrontation can have only one winner. Trump has thus concentrated his Twitter account on deriding the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation and discrediting it.
This has rightly reminded many people of Bill Clinton’s effort to discredit the independent counsel investigation into the 42nd president’s conduct, including his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. For some, “no collusion” sounds like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
We know now that Clinton was lying, but there is no reason to think his political strategy would have been any different had the allegations indeed been fabricated by a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” He understood his presidency was in grave peril and that his top priority was to keep his party united behind him. That included members of his cabinet, to whom he lied personally, Democrats in Congress, and the party base. Clinton’s surrogates focused on the supposed injustice of the independent counsel investigation of Kenneth Starr not only to smear Starr but also and primarily to create a bête noire upon whom his supporters could focus their anger.
Clinton couldn’t fire Starr, who was appointed under the authority of the now-defunct independent counsel statute. Whether he would have considered doing so if he could have we will never know, but from the time news of the Lewinsky affair broke in January 1998 until Starr presented his findings of “impeachable offenses” in a report to Congress in September of that year, Starr’s investigation served as an ideal whipping boy, constrained as it was by prosecutorial canons requiring that the independent counsel refrain from explaining or defending his office’s conduct.
Clinton resolved at the outset, in one of the most determined decisions of his presidency, that he was not leaving office early. He would do whatever it might take to avoid that outcome, including lying in public and under oath. By the time the Starr report did come out, outrage against Starr among Democrats was sufficiently solid that there was no realistic chance enough Democrats in the Senate would defect to remove Clinton from office.
Mueller and his “13 angry Democrats”—Trump’s reference to the bizarre decision of Mueller to mainly staff his office with Democrats—have likewise served Trump’s interest in galvanizing his supporters. In the absence of a voluntary decision on the part of Mueller to exonerate Trump and shut down the probe, Trump is probably about as well-positioned to make good on his own determination to remain in office as he could be. Mueller is his whipping boy: Dumping him would be counterproductive; worse than a crime, it would be a blunder.
It’s also worth noting that Trump has a longer time horizon than Clinton did (not counting the latter’s political aspirations for his wife). Trump no doubt has in mind using a victory over the effort to drive him from office as a springboard to reelection. Clinton never had such an opportunity—which, strictly from the point of view of the connoisseurship of our democratic politics, is really kind of a shame.