Investigations seem to be closing in on Trump from all sides these days. As more evidence that millions of dollars, much apparently from overseas, flowed into Essential Consulting, Michael Cohen is telling friends he “can’t take this anymore”. Evidence has emerged that indicates Trump was signing a secret letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow on the very day he was claiming he had no business in Russia in a Republican primary debate, in what David Corn points out could be the greatest conflict of interest in American political history. Eyewitness testimony shows that the Trump team was totally focused on getting dirt on Hillary Clinton in the Trump Tower meeting and that Trump himself was involved in crafting the false explanation of that meeting. Mueller is also closing in on Roger Stone, subpoenaing at least two of his close associates.
Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, is under increasing pressure to flip with his ex son-in-law now apparently agreeing to cooperate. The deputy campaign manager has already flipped as has Trump’s national security adviser who was negotiating to provide the “quo” of removing sanctions to the Russians “quid” of support for Trump and other possible benefits. The investigation into Trump’s collusion with Russia was more active during the campaign than initially realized and involved at least one “government informant”.
Trump has been forced to admit he did pay Stormy Daniels off, prompting a criminal referral for reporting violations. Due to a recent court ruling, the discovery phase of Summer Zerbos’ defamation suit looks like it will begin soon, potentially exposing Trump’s unscripted comments about women during his time at the apprentice. Michael Avenatti claims he has two more women who were paid hush money to stay quiet about their affairs with Trump.
Michael Cohen has been exposed as running an extensive pay-to-play scheme, the proceeds of which potentially may have gone to Trump or the Trump organization. Trump’s odd foreign policy moves with ZTE and Qatar also hint at potential issues of bribery and brazen violations of the Emoluments Clause.
Mueller has apparently finished his investigation of obstruction of justice and is forcing Trump to go through contortions to pretend he wants to speak to Mueller despite that everyone, even his supporters, knows that would be political and legal suicide.
Over the last few weeks, Rudy Giuliani has significantly moved the goalposts on a number of critical issues. He admitted that Trump actually did pay off Storm Daniels. He has floated the idea that the President might invoke the Fifth Amendment when he talks to Mueller. He has thrown Jared Kushner under the bus. And now Giuliani is virtually admitting that the Trump campaign was talking to the Russians in a specific effort to collude. But, he claims, since the campaign didn’t use the dirt they either did or did not receive, that proves there is no collusion. Specifically Giuliani said, “They never used it, is the main thing. They rejected it. If there was collusion with the Russians, they would’ve used it.” This narrows the concept of collusion, which is not a legal term, rather dramatically, but ignores the actual legal exposure of conspiracy, especially if the Trump team helped coordinate the timing of the Wikileaks and Russian leaks of Democratic data. And now, Giuliani is again floating the idea of firing Rosenstein.
To the normal, informed observer, it appears that Giuliani is actually doing Trump more harm than good. In reality, however, Rudy is preparing Trump supporters who get their news from the Trump propaganda machine like Fox News and Sinclair for the damaging information that he knows will come out. He can admit that Trump paid Stormy Daniels and claim it was not a campaign violation. He can say Trump may take the Fifth Amendment or not even meet with Mueller but that’s because Mueller is laying a perjury trap. He can say that, of course, the Trump campaign sought out and got dirt on Hillary, but it’s not collusion because the campaign itself didn’t use it. He can say that the informant that provided information about the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians was actually an FBI spy, part of the treasonous plot that also tapped Trump Tower.
The reason it appears that Giuliani’s statements continually hurt Trump’s case is because the facts themselves, whether they’ve been revealed yet or not, hurt Trump’s case. Giuliani is just trying to get out ahead of all that.
All of this has prompted Trump and his minions to double down on the strategy of attacking the investigation and investigators. Trump has described the whole affair as a “political witch hunt” and, bizarrely and perhaps revealing his ignorance of history, “bigger than Watergate”. Sean Hannity has described the investigation as “a direct threat to this American Republic” and threatening the rule of law. Giuliani is promising more direct pressure on Mueller and more calls for the investigation to end.
In addition, the Trump team is taking another, more dangerous path in attacking the investigation. The plan is to force the DOJ/FBI to release confidential information about the investigation and some of the sources it has used. If the DOJ refuses, it will provide the excuse Trump needs to fire Rosenstein and/or Sessions. If the confidential information is provided, it will be used to not only prepare Trump’s defense but also to attack the integrity of the Mueller investigation. The tactic has already been used on the issue of the Carter Page FISA warrant and the authorization from Rosenstein to allow Mueller to investigate Manafort’s financial crimes. The latest attempt at this strategy involves trying to “out” the confidential informant that the FBI used in the early part of the investigation during the Trump campaign. Incredibly, Trump’s co-conspirators in the House have already drafted articles to impeach Rosenstein in order to remove him.
As Paul Krugman notes, this is bordering on treason and the Republican party is going along with it. At this point, whether this effort succeeds or not, decreases the likelihood that confidential informants will provide information to the intelligence community in the future and therefore the safety of our country as well.
A recent focus group in Wisconsin showed that, unsurprisingly, Trump supporters reflected his messages about Mueller. Those supporters described Mueller as “‘unethical,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘partisan,’ and ‘a liar’” while mimicking the President’s words about a “witch hunt”. And, as Hilary Clinton noted some time ago, about half of those supporters would have no problem if Trump shot Rosenstein or Mueller in the middle of Fifth Avenue if that’s what it takes to protect their vision of white Christian nationalism. But, remarkably, even some Trump supporters in this focus group did not want to see him fire Mueller, saying it would look “suspicious” and indicate Trump was hiding something. That attitude is probably the only thing that has prevented Trump from already ending the investigation.
This is the conundrum that Trump faces. The facts that keep emerging make him look more and more guilty, on collusion, on obstruction, on corruption. The response from Trump vacillates between seeming determined to end the investigation, which even his supporters currently believe will be political suicide, or attacking the credibility of the that investigation. The problem is that every new damaging piece of information against Trump increases his rage and requires a ratcheting up of the pressure on Mueller. Both approaches eventually end up in the same place — with some attempt to end the investigation.
Frighteningly, a new CBS poll shows that a slight majority of Americans now view the Mueller investigation as being politically motivated. This opinion is rising simply because more Republicans are jumping on board with Trump’s witch hunt theory. If this continues, Trump will at some point feel he has enough political capital to end the investigation.
My guess is that Trump will keep this level of fury up until the election, hoping to energize his base by making the Mueller investigation an election issue. He will keep ratcheting up the attacks on Mueller while claiming more and more that he can not be challenged as President. He has already claimed in legal filings that he has absolute immunity from any challenges regarding the Emoluments Clause. He engages in blatant abuses of power such as demanding the Postmaster General raise rates on companies Trump dislikes. And he has already shown that he believes he can fire anybody in government for whatever reason, including the purpose of obstructing or ending an investigation, at any time, without consequence or liability.
I think the most dangerous time for Mueller will be during the lame-duck session after the election. That would provide an opportune time for Trump to end the investigation. If the Democrats win the House, shutting down Mueller before the Democrats could begin their investigations becomes politically palatable and further allows Trump to claim those Democratic investigations are old news and continuing the witch hunt. And if the GOP holds on to the House, then Trump knows he will have the support to end it.
Of course, November is a lifetime from now and Mueller has many cards to play that we know nothing of. An indictment of a top Trump campaign official that shows real coordination with the Russians would be a significant game changer. It might also prompt Trump to act to end the investigation sooner. One thing I think we can be sure of, however, is that Trump will not go away quietly like Nixon. Especially with the makeup of the Senate, he will fight to the bitter end and seems entirely willing to burn the house and our country down with him.