Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why Trump Might Fire Mueller

Tom pinch hits for Steve for our Sunday OpEd, and argues that whether Trump believes he is completely innocent, dead-to-rights guilty, or anywhere in the middle, the only logical next step he will see is to fire Mueller, and soon.

Donald Trump is in an endless loop.  The more moves he makes to try to shed the long shadow of RussiaGate over his presidency, the larger the shadow looms. 

And now, with the Washington Post reporting that Robert Mueller is investigating Trump himself on obstruction of justice charges, RussiaGate has made it directly to Trump’s desk in the Oval Office.

What next?  Will Trump fire Mueller, reenacting the Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate lore, right on down to the historical echo of the third-in-command at the Department of Justice doing the deed?  The country is now in the throes of the “will he or won’t he” watch, busily reading the bio of Rachel Brand, who may be destined to become the next player in this remarkable saga, joining a Watergate-worthy roster for its breadth.  Brand, the Associate Attorney General, third in line after Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein in the DOJ, is, by reputation, an arch-conservative, the Robert Bork of her time, and thus presumably willing to fire Mueller if so ordered.

The conventional wisdom – and apparently the advice of Trump's aides -- is that Trump should simply lay low, focus on his agenda, let the Mueller investigation carry on to its conclusion, and take whatever comes when it comes.  This is surely the right advice and, practically speaking, especially so if Trump is innocent, as he proclaims.

But he is not remotely following that strategy.  Instead, he has personally taken on the public fight (mostly via Twitter), sidelined his entire White House staff in the fray, brought in a Doppelganger New York City lawyer, Mark Kasowitz (and now, also DC old hand John Dowd), to deal with the daily deluge of breaking news, and enlisted his trusty surrogates (Exhibit A:  Newt Gingrich) to wage the nascent fight to discredit Robert Mueller and his investigation.

Why would he resist the conventional strategy, and fire Mueller?  Because, under any scenario with respect to Trump’s guilt, it might actually make perfect sense in Donald World, and there is a logic to it, perverse though it may be.

Scenario A:  let’s say Trump really is completely innocent of any impeachable crimes.  If he believes that, then you take his vitriolic claims at face value:  RussiaGate really is a series of inconsequential meetings with no provable collusion; Flynn made some mistakes and had to be fired, but Trump does not want him to do jail time because he was loyal and a “nice guy”, so, unschooled in FBI protocol, he leaned on Comey a bit to ease up on him; and there is nothing to be found in all of the various financial and conflict entanglements.

Why fire Mueller in this scenario?  Because if Trump truly believes this is a “witch hunt” and Mueller is a Comey-crony, card-carrying Deep State elitist who could surely manufacture some crime and make up some damning evidence, then he has to eliminate him before it happens.  And as for the outrage his aides are warning him of if he did fire Mueller?  Trump surely feels that he has defied the odds thus far, having weathered countless he-can’t-survive-this moments in his two-year assault on presidential politics and the presidency itself.  He might feel more comfortable taking the chance that his 80%+ approval rating among Republicans will hold even after a Mueller firing, preventing GOP defections on Capitol Hill.

Laying low is not his style, never has been, never will be, and certainly would not be if he knew he was innocent.  Why be quiet about that?

Scenario B:  The other theory, of course, is that Trump has a great deal to hide, is guilty as sin of something impeachable, and will take any action, however desperate, to keep  that something hidden, because if that something is discovered, his presidency is over.

Under Theory B, Trump knows he is guilty of at least one specific thing.  Perhaps Flynn knows what it is with respect to Russia – maybe Trump’s OK’ing of a scheme to work with the Russians on the optimal timing to release Wikileaks-produced emails and Trump was trying to buy his silence; perhaps Trump’s ties to Russian banks reveal some compromising exposure to blackmail that directly links to promised favors to Putin; perhaps Trump knows darn well he actually did intend to obstruct justice in all his Comey/Rogers/Coats machinations; maybe he knows Jared is in it deep and could go to jail if this goes much further. 

Clearly, under this scenario, he might feel he has to take his chances with firing Mueller because he knows Mueller, with his army of agents and lawyers and unlimited resources and time, will find that something, that smoking gun.  And the only way to prevent that is to get rid of him.  Once again, he will count on rank and file support to carry him through, and for the GOP leadership to fold once again in the face of still-strong Trump approval ratings among GOP likely voters.

Why has he not fired Mueller yet?  One might surmise he has decided the situation has to ripen; perhaps there is a three-pronged strategy at work to set the stage:

1.     Wait for Rosenstein to recuse himself, which probably will happen soon enough, and thus avoid another firing and the inevitable Saturday Night Massacre analogies.

2.     Soften up Mueller through an outpouring of outraged tweets and the surrogate campaign to discredit him, pounding away that he is a member of the Deep State.  Like any marketing campaign, the main theme needs a few weeks to become fully embedded in the arch-right psyche: that the Washington establishment fix is in and Mueller, the epitome of a Beltway elite, is out for Trump.  Gingrich is already counting the number of Democratic lawyers Mueller is hiring, and more “evidence” will surely be brought forward.

3.     Get a little more traction in the approval ratings.  Perhaps an unexpected win on health care in the Senate, or some small ball victories like Cuba, deregulation and perhaps another spinnable jobs report in early July: some bits of news to hearten the base.  (And I hate to say this, but the horrendous shooting of Steve Scalise was a win for Trump, as he finally exhibited some post-tragedy dignity, perhaps learning from his disastrous post-London terror performance.)  He might seek to get himself back in the low 40% range – an improvement -- before dropping the next bomb.

It seems preposterous to think that Trump would actually fire Mueller. The blowback from the Comey firing was intense, and the ultimate outcome – the naming of Mueller – was disastrous.  But Trump likes to “double down,” do the unconventional, and follow his instincts.  His approval rating – which he checks more often than we do here at BTRTN – dipped but then has returned to that ~ 40% range.  And by the logic outlined above, he may think he has no choice but to get rid of Mueller.

Stranger things have happened.  After all, once upon a time, Donald Trump was elected President.

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