the national interest

Trump Is Taking Out His Enemies and Turning Toward Robert Mueller

The president is readying his stab in the dark. Photo: Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty Images

A history professor of mine once attempted to explain to our class why Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, when the virtual impossibility of a land invasion of a country as vast as Russia was already well known in 1941. The answer, he concluded, was that Hitler was put on earth to invade Russia. His loathing of Bolshevism, his twisted Darwinian mania for the acquisition of land and resources, and his fixation with his own military genius all led him to a decision that was both inevitable and impossible.

This is a good way to think about President Trump’s approach toward the Robert Mueller investigation. Trump is not a Nazi or a fascist, and I am not drawing any moral parallel between the two. The similarity, rather, lies in the way an apparently irrational decision can be made logical and necessary by a certain kind of twisted internal logic that can escape outsiders. I have long believed Trump is headed toward a confrontation with Mueller, and those who doubt he will finally take the plunge are making the mistake of judging Trump by the standards of a normal president and not his own demonstrated pathologies. The sacking of FBI staff member Andrew McCabe for alleged unauthorized leaking to the news media, and comments by Trump’s lawyer John Dowd calling for the firing or Robert Mueller add to an ominous drumbeat.

What are the forces and vectors pushing in this direction? Trump, of course, has been raging against the Department of Justice and the FBI since the campaign itself, when he demanded his opponent be locked up. He fired the FBI director for failing to demonstrate sufficient loyalty, he has repeatedly lashed the attorney general for his obviously necessary recusal from an investigation into the campaign he was part of, and he has repeatedly demanded that the same attorney general investigate his opponents.

Since the firing of James Comey, the staff members around Trump have managed to placate, delay, or contain some of these impulses. But nearly every reporter following the White House now agrees that Trump is moving into a new phase of his presidency. He is aware that he has surrounded himself with people who consider him a moron or are trying to save the country from his madness, and he is relentlessly casting them off.

Trump may not be systematically breaking through the protective ring that has surrounded him, because he is barely capable of doing anything in a systematic fashion. But in fits and starts he is lurching in the same basic direction. He is doing the things his aides told him he could not do, or refused to carry out. Imposing tariffs was a major step in asserting his autonomy. Firing Rex Tillerson in humiliating fashion was another. The case that he would leave Mueller alone relied on the assumption that Trump would stay contained forever. That assumption is crumbling.

It is also notable that Trump’s recent behavior displays a reckless disregard for even his own self-preservation. In his legal battle with Stormy Daniels, Trump is opening himself to legal discovery that may expose campaign finance violations or other misdeeds. He not only demanded the firing of McCabe, he proceeded to taunt his victim.

The legal merits of the case for firing McCabe are not fully known to the public. It is possible McCabe stepped out of line when briefing reporters on a story that made the Clinton campaign look bad. The publicly known factual contours of the episode make this seem highly unlikely. Almost certainly, Sessions fired McCabe because Trump hated McCabe and wanted to punish him and to discredit one of Comey’s corroborating witnesses. Trump’s end zone dance will help McCabe make that case, which he can press in a wrongful termination lawsuit, and which will also open up for discovery more of Trump’s interactions with Sessions.

Trump is exposing himself to legal danger for the fleeting satisfaction of a tweet. Can there be any doubt he would take the risk of firing a Mueller?

It is notable as well that Trump has successfully lined up most of his party apparatus behind him for any confrontation. The House Republicans closed their Russia “investigation,” which was obviously intended all along to provide a pretext for declaring Trump innocent. Conservative media has been hammering the message for months that Trump has done nothing wrong, and that all the criminal misbehavior exists on the side of the investigators.

All this effort has been expended either in support, or in studiously ignoring the existence, of Trump’s deep-rooted contempt for the rule of law. Whether or not McCabe filled out all the necessary memos when talking to a reporter, how fully the FBI disclosed its source material for its FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page, or any other legal claims upon which Trump’s defenders have rested their case, are beside the point. Trump believes law enforcement should operate for his benefit, punishing his enemies and protecting his friends. He admires strongmen. His contempt for democratic norms is characterological. The notion that his own government would investigate him is as unfathomable to Trump as his being called to the carpet by a Trump Organization secretary. Trump is going to go after Mueller at some point because there is no other way for Trump’s febrile mind to make sense of the world.

Trump Is Taking Out His Enemies and Turning Toward Mueller