On May 2, 2018, Ty Cobb, Trump’s long-time White House attorney, resigned. Cobb had been leading Trump’s legal effort to handle the Robert Mueller-led Russian investigation, and he’d been preaching cooperation with Mueller rather than confrontation. Cobb’s advice from the beginning of the Special Counsel’s investigation had been to maintain a cordial and professional relationship with Mueller. But as the walls close in on Trump he is slinging more mud at Mueller, and Cobb is reportedly frustrated at Trump’s bellicose “counterpunching.” Trump is circling the wagons and bringing in a more belligerent team of lawyers, most recently Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor and mayor of New York, and attorney Emmet Flood, who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.
Days before, the New York Times reported a set of questions that Mueller and his team purportedly want to ask the President, and this revelation shook up the White House. Now the Trump team is suggesting that he won’t agree to meet with Mueller to answer questions, and Mueller responded by hinting that he may subpoena Trump to appear before a grand jury. Meanwhile, a group of conservative Republican House members have drawn up articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein responded by saying that the Justice Department would not allow itself to be extorted. A game of tit-for-tat that was being played with tennis balls is now being played with cannonballs.
After Rosenstein’s comment, Trump lashed out with a series of tweets aimed at the Justice Department and Mueller’s Russia investigation:
A Rigged System – They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress. What are they afraid of? Why so much redacting? Why such unequal “justice?” At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!
There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap). What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more. Witch Hunt!
So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were “leaked” to the media. No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!
As these tweets illustrate, Trump is increasingly alarmed and distracted by the ongoing Russia investigation and is threatening courses of action that could lead to a constitutional crisis—or at the very least a near-total dismantling of the Republican Party. Short of cooperating with Mueller and telling the truth, which Trump is incapable of and might incriminate him anyway, the President has few safe options, especially if he does “use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved”:
- He can fire Rod Rosenstein, which he has repeatedly threatened to do. However, firing Rosenstein could prompt Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign (which he has indicated he may do if Rosenstein is fired). In and of itself, firing Rosenstein is dangerous because it could be construed as obstruction of justice and it would likely fuel the ire of Democrats and some Republicans with a conscience, and if Democrats take control of the House next November they could initiate impeachment proceedings based on this action. Besides, firing Rosenstein won’t necessarily derail the Mueller investigation. To truly derail it, Trump would need to appoint a new Attorney General who has no scruples and is one of Trump’s loyal toadies, in short, a person who would do whatever Trump orders him to do (Does Scott Pruitt come to mind?).
- Trump can fire Robert Mueller, but this option is even more dangerous. As legislators on both sides of the aisle have indicated, they would view this action as tantamount to obstruction of justice. Mueller is respected by a bipartisan spectrum of lawmakers. Trump’s firing of him would generate greater disapproval among the American electorate as well as in Congress and would fuel a backlash in the press (except for Fox News, the President’s personal propaganda machine). Ty Cobb was one of the moderating voices on Trump’s legal team. With his departure and the arrival of more aggressive lawyers, we may see Trump follow this course of action, especially as Mueller’s team comes closer to the President. If that happens, Republican members of Congress will be forced either to defend Trump or defend the rule of law and our system of justice, and the schism created could further destroy the Republican Party.
- Trump’s legal team could attempt to disrupt Mueller’s proceedings by creating a legal sandstorm—filing lawsuits and motions aimed at obfuscating the issues and delaying the Russia investigation long enough for it to lose momentum (and interest among the American public). This option seems most likely, but it’s doubtful that it would succeed long enough for Trump to reach the end of this term of office. Nevertheless, this is a tactic they will likely adopt.
- The most likely option is for Trump to continue his mud-slinging on Twitter and try to discredit the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, and Robert Mueller to the point that the public turns against them. He keeps repeating “NO COLLUSION” and “WITCH HUNT” as though if he says it enough people will believe it. However, while his base succumbs to this ruse, and some Americans will tune out because they’re sick of the whole mess, Trump’s poisonous behavior is alienating many others in the citizenry who will be driven to vote against him and the Republicans who support him. That Trump’s legal team is pursuing this option was confirmed when Rudy Giuliani went on Fox News and called New York FBI agents “stormtroopers.” Discrediting our justice system and law enforcement officials is a cynical tactic that could cause some Americans to lose faith in the justice system. We’ve come to expect no less from Trump, who would readily burn down revered institutions to save his own skin, but Giuliani’s participation in this spectacle is a dispiriting departure from the “law and order” mayor he once was. Look no further for a man who has sold his soul to the devil.
- A final option for Trump is to create an even bigger national issue that totally takes the public’s focus away from the Russia investigation—starting a war or provoking an adversary like Iran, Russia, or North Korea to attack American assets or interests and then strike back in retaliation. Creating an armed conflict with mounting casualties and ongoing military action would no doubt take the public’s focus off the Russia investigation. In times of crisis, people rally around their national leaders, and Trump surely knows this. We don’t see evidence that Trump will follow this course of action, but he hasn’t been pushed to the brink yet.
We do predict that if Trump sees a serious threat to his presidency he may use his presidential powers to pardon Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen (maybe not), and anyone else in his inner circle who’s in danger of indictment, especially family members at risk: Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner. Trump won’t care about the hullabaloo arising from such pardons. He’ll just do what he can to protect those closest to him. The one provision of the U.S. Constitution that may stymie him in his use of presidential pardons is the requirement that the president faithfully execute the powers of his office, and parsons for the purpose of self-protection would likely violate this constitutional requirement and subject him to impeachment.
Trump is a man without scruples, and he has a wounded animal’s impulse for self-preservation. As the walls close in, he will lash out and become more vicious. And if he goes down, he’ll go down swinging.
Art credits: Top two illustrations: Doddis@dreamstime.com; bottom two illustrations: Reniutami@dreamstime.com; feature photo: Danny Raustadt@dreamstime.com.