the national interest

President Trump Is Taking Control of the Mueller Probe in Slices

President Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Hungarian communist leader Mátyás Rákosi invented the phrase “salami tactics” to describe how his party established a dictatorship. The phrase has come to describe a way of taking power in increments, by forcing your opponent to repeatedly choose between either giving up a small concession – a slice of the salami – or staging a total confrontation.

As Rákosi later wrote, Hungary’s communists wanted full control of the state, but had to leave their goal ambiguous at the outset, because “discussion of a dictatorship of the proletariat as our final aim would have caused alarm among our partners in coalition.” They initially joined a broad coalition of parties to run the government, but in progressive steps, they would demand the ouster of the most objectionable members. “This work we called ‘Salami Tactics’, by which we cut out in slices reaction hiding in the Smallholders’ Party,” he explained. Eventually, Rakosi’s party had sliced away enough that the opposition could no longer stand in the way of their gaining complete power.

To the extent President Trump has a conscious strategy against the Russia investigation, this is it. If Trump had baldly demanded a year ago that he be handed full control over the prosecutorial powers of the Justice Department, many of his coalition partners (Republicans in Congress) would have revolted. Instead he has encroached step by step upon the Department’s independence. At each step, his opponents have had to choose between giving him one more slice of salami and staging an irrevocable breach. The salami is getting shorter, and Trump’s final demands are drawing closer.

Since Watergate, which revealed the potential for abuse inherent in a law-enforcement agency under presidential control, the Department of Justice has operated under a series of formal and informal protocols designed to prevent politicians from interfering with its investigations. One of those regulations, a 1976 law giving the FBI director a ten-year term (to protect him from answering to the president) that could not be renewed (to prevent him from amassing unaccountable power) was blown through almost immediately, when Trump fired James Comey in May 2017. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein could have resigned rather than put his name on a transparently disingenuous letter justifying Comey’s firing. But Rosenstein may well have figured that, if he resigned, Trump could simply install a more pliant replacement.

Rosenstein’s willingness to write a letter supporting the firing was the first slice of salami. Many more have followed. In violation of Department rules against sharing information about ongoing investigations, Rosenstein has shared documents used in the Mueller probe with Congress, and given Congress access to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications. The rules also prevent the Department from communicating directly with the president about an active investigation, but after Trump viewed this distancing as an “affront,” Rosenstein is now giving up on this rule, too.

On each of these individual fights, Rosenstein’s decision can be justified. Does he want to make a public stand over some relatively minor point of Justice Department protocol, at the risk of setting up an unstoppable Constitutional crisis? If he gives up another slice of salami, the Department stays in place and he lives to fight another day. At some point, however, he will have surrendered so much control that there will be nothing left to fight for.

In the meantime, Trump’s disguised ends are growing increasingly naked. Over the weekend, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani called the Mueller investigation “illegitimate.” Rather than denying that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, he is portraying collusion as some murky and undefinable act. “Look, you can’t say you’re spying on the Russians if what you’re trying to do is to show the Russians are colluding, whatever the hell that means, with the Trump campaign,” he told Bill Hemmer. “You go out to the outer orbit [of the campaign], how do I know what’s going on?,” he declared on CNN. “But I don’t think that would matter. You can’t, you know, there’s just collusion with a guy 50 rungs down on the campaign? Not that I’m saying it happened, but if it did, I don’t know what that means.”

So now Giuliani is simultaneously all but conceding that members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and calling the entire investigation illegitimate. Trump’s defensive line on the facts of the case is retreating at the same moment his procedural attack on the investigation is advancing. Republicans are converging on the position that they have the right to decide which laws matter and who should be investigated.

This increasingly aggressive posture appears to be following a predetermined schedule. Congressional Republicans are determined to seize control of the Mueller investigation before voters have a chance to strip them of the majority that gives them the power to do it. As Devin Nunes stenographer Kimberly Strassel recently reported, “the pressure to use these tools to get disclosure is growing, as congressional Republicans worry about losing their oversight authority in the midterms, and suspect the Justice Department is stringing them along for that very reason.”

Rosenstein may well be trying to mollify his tormentors through a policy of slow-moving appeasement. Contrary to myth, appeasement sometimes works.

On the other hand, it’s hardly guaranteed that Democrats will take the gavel out of Nunes’s hands in the midterm elections. James Comey gave in to Republican demands and compromised FBI policy by announcing his investigation of Hillary Clinton because he believed Democrats were bound to win the 2016 presidential election. If Republicans maintain their majority in November, Rosenstein and the Justice Department will suddenly be staring down an emboldened Republican Party prepared to take whatever remains of his independence.

Trump Is Taking Control of the Mueller Probe in Slices