In the middle of the week, the orange dumpster fire in the Oval treated America to a string of rage tweets—an increasingly-familiar occasion that nonetheless managed to distinguish itself as noteworthy.
“FBI Agent Peter Strzok (on the Mueller team) should have recused himself on day one,” Trump began on Wednesday morning. “He was out to STOP THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP.” Trump charged that Mueller was trying to “creating the illusion of objectivity” around the Russia probe. “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now,” he wrote. Manafort, he said, had worked for many other “highly” respected GOP politicians, in an effort to shake his own culpability for hiring the man whose trial dominated this week in headlines. “These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion,” he continued, “a TOTAL HOAX.” Trump compared Manafort to infamous mob boss Al Capone and wondered, “who was treated worse”? Finally, Trump once again compared the Clinton campaign’s efforts to dig up opposition research on his dealings with Russia to multiple efforts by his campaign chiefs to get “dirt” on Clinton from the government of foreign adversary. “How is it OK for Hillary Clinton to proactively seek dirt from the Russians but the Trump campaign met at the Russians request and that is bad?” he wrote, quoting a deeply duplicitous op-ed from Marc Thiessen in the Washington Post.
The dark heart of that revealing stream of consciousness that most people fixated on, and with good reason, was Trump directing his Attorney General to “stop” the Mueller probe “right now.” If the tweet wasn’t outright obstruction of justice in and of itself, it certainly just became a chief exhibit in establishing a pattern of behavior aimed at obstructing the Russia investigation. It certainly drew enough attention that Trump officials spent the rest of the day denying it was an order, stressing instead that it merely represented Trump “stating his opinion.”
But on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal was unyieldingly blunt in his rejection of that assertion.
“There is now highly credible evidence that the president of the United States is committing obstruction of justice in real time, right before our eyes,” he told reporters.
More and more, that is our new normal: Trump committing crimes in plain sight. And it’s a concept that’s worth applying to many suspect instances that we are all well aware of by now. For instance, when Trump infamously urged in July of 2016, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” we now know through a Mueller indictment that Russian intelligence operatives actually made their first attempt to hack the Clinton campaign on or around that same day.
“For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the conspirators attempted after-hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office,” according to the indictment, referring to spearphishing, a common tactic used to target email accounts.
These public pronouncements that in retrospect appear to have served as overt cues are what national security journalist Marcy Wheeler referred to as a “call-and-response” in a post this week. It is no longer far-fetched, for example, to imagine that prior to Trump’s hacking invitation, Russian President Vladimir Putin got a message to Trump along the lines of, “You give us the signal and we’ll do this.” The stipulation may have even been that Trump state it publicly, that way the declaration automatically becomes kompromat for Putin.
Or what about the time now-indicted Russian operative Maria Butina turned up at a Trump press conference in July 2015 and, identifying herself as a Russian, asked him, “Do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?”
Trump responded, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin. … I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”
Nothing left to the imagination there—we’ll get along swimmingly and the sanctions won’t be an issue. Right in plain sight. That same month, “Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016,” according to a declassified version of a highly classified assessment provided to Trump and others by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
It was also in plain sight that we watched Trump stand alongside Putin in Helsinki several weeks ago and fold like a house of cards, backing Putin’s version of events over those of U.S. intelligence agencies. The most logical explanation for the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to stand alongside the leader of a considerably less powerful nation and completely kowtow to him is that he’s afraid of the wrath that leader could unleash on him. It’s not the only explanation, it’s just the most obvious.
It’s probably time we stopped looking in the dark corners for the crimes that are being committed right before our very eyes. When Trump urged Sessions to end the Mueller probe this week, his intentions were clear. He’s telling us what he wants. And those in-plain-sight expressions will only get more urgent and obvious as the walls close in on Trump. He was reportedly sent into his twitter tailspin on Wednesday either because he was “closely monitoring” coverage of the Manafort trial or he learned that Mueller wants to question him about obstruction of justice. Or in all likelihood, it was a little bit of both.
As Trump’s coauthor of The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, and forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee wrote last week:
Trump’s grip on reality will likely continue to diminish as he faces increasing criticism, accusations, threats of impeachment and potential criminal indictments. We can expect him to become more desperate, more extreme in his comments, more violent in his threats, and more reckless and destructive in his actions.
Trump is increasingly acting like someone getting squeezed from both sides like a vise grip. In Helsinki, Putin probably spent two-plus hours reminding Trump of the havoc he can wreak on his presidency, his business, his family, and his entire life. Trump’s subservience and capitulation to Putin during the press conference that followed were unmistakable.
But after weathering weeks of abysmal reviews for his Helsinki sellout, Trump is now being treated to a first-hand look at the U.S. justice system at work and the hammer Mueller is bringing down on him—painfully slowly and methodically. As Wheeler noted in her post, “Trump knows he’s screwed. He’s just not sure whether Putin or Mueller presents the bigger threat.”
These are the two realities Trump is ping-ponging between, with one alternately looming larger than the other based on the most recent cable news coverage he’s been steeping in during his treasured “executive time.” Relief will not come to Trump or the nation until the Russia drama has run its course. Putin is sure to keep reminding Trump what he’s owed. Last week, no sooner did Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, announce the postponement of Trump’s invitation to Putin to visit Washington than Putin boxed in Trump with an invitation to Moscow during public remarks at a summit in South Africa.
“Regarding our meetings, I understand very well what President Trump said. He has a desire to have further meetings,” Putin said of Trump’s original invitation to him. “We are ready for such meetings. We are ready to invite President Trump to Moscow. By all means.”
That was a plain-sight power play by Putin—if you’re postponing my visit to Washington, I’ll publicly invite you to Moscow. Putin was seemingly reminding Trump who his master is.
During those same remarks, Putin also praised Trump’s unique ability to make good on his “campaign promises”—whatever promises those may have been.
“You can criticize him for what he is doing,” Putin said, “and some people do criticize him, however, one thing remains absolutely clear — he is committed to fulfilling his campaign promises.”
“As a rule, some leaders quickly forget what they had promised to the people once the elections are over,” Putin said, according to Russia’s state-run news agency TASS. “But Trump doesn’t.”
Is it me, or does that read like a threat hiding in plain sight?