President Donald Trump attempted to get special counsel Robert Mueller fired back in June, according to reports, but White House counsel Donald McGahn refused to set the plan in motion, threatened to resign in protest, and Trump backed down.
Yes, this is a big deal. I’ve been saying that there’s enough evidence of Trump’s abuse of power and obstruction of justice to provide reasonable grounds for impeachment, but not enough that the evidence demands impeachment. This pushes the needle a little further toward the latter of those two points.
Trump’s failure to fire Mueller doesn’t excuse his attempt. After all, the “smoking gun” in the Watergate case – that Richard Nixon had his White House staff ask the CIA to have the FBI back off its investigation – basically failed, buying Nixon only a couple of weeks before the investigation continued. Of course, by itself this would only have limited meaning, but along with Trump’s other actions, including firing FBI Director James Comey, it’s not good at all.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
It’s also yet another example of Trump’s incredible weakness as a president: He gave an order, then got rolled by a White House staffer.
Every president eventually gives orders that are disobeyed. Nixon certainly did: He ordered the White House staff to break into the Brookings Institution, and they never did that. George W. Bush had orders defied twice on Sept. 11, 2001; the Secret Service overruled his order to return to the White House immediately from Florida, then the transportation secretary didn’t follow Bush’s order to resume regular civilian airline flights. Of course, neither of them can actually overrule the president, but they can use a variety of bureaucratic tactics to defy him. And the weaker the president, the easier it is to do so.
Trump, as I’ve argued throughout his presidency, is the weakest. His presidential skills are practically nonexistent: He’s easily manipulated in person, unusually ill-informed and easily distracted. His professional reputation is awful, and he’s not very popular with the public at large.
After all, it’s not every president who has his own staff telling reporters they don’t trust him around the other party’s Senate leader.
Some of the very same things that contribute to his weakness, however, make him dangerous. Most presidents are constrained by the strong incentives the job provides to, for example, establish a reputation for honesty. They don’t avoid obvious lies because they’re ethical, but because it’s smart to do so. Trump ignores those incentives. He is, compared to most presidents, apt to do almost anything. So even though he’s frequently rolled, he probably also gets away with things that other presidents wouldn’t even try – often because they’re self-defeating in some way.
Mueller apparently wants to interview Trump soon, a situation that is extraordinarily dangerous for the president. What happens after that is hard to say, because there’s plenty we still don’t know about what evidence Mueller is compiling, and what the political situation will look like when his investigation concludes – or at least when he’s ready to report publicly (or to Congress) what he’s found. But whatever happens with that, it’s amazing how little influence this president has. And there’s little sign that it’s going to change anytime soon.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.