We cannot know for sure why President Donald Trump unleashed a volley of attacks over the weekend on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Perhaps he is edging toward an effort to remove him. Or perhaps he is not - the White House Sunday night insisted he isn’t - and is instead merely trying to tar the Mueller probe in the minds of his voters, in preparation for dismissing any Mueller findings of serious misconduct as illegitimate.
But here’s what we do know: Most Republicans failed to seize this occasion to send a clear signal that any effort to remove Mueller will be met with serious consequences.
A new report on Trump’s state of mind from the New York Times underscores why this should worry us a great deal. Relying on numerous people close to Trump, it says he decided to attack Mueller over the advice of his advisers because he “ultimately trusts only his own instincts,” with the result that Trump is “newly emboldened” to “ignore the cautions of those around him.”
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“For months, aides were mostly able to redirect a neophyte president with warnings about the consequences of his actions, and mostly control his public behavior,” the Times says. But some of his recent actions - his decisions to go ahead with tariffs and a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - have persuaded him that such warnings are overblown. Make sure not to miss this sentence:
“Warnings of dire consequences from his critics have failed to materialize.”
This helps explain why Trump unleashed his fury on Mueller over the weekend. In a tweet storm that was full of lies Trump claimed that law enforcement is riddled with corruption and that the Mueller probe itself is illegitimate. To make this latter claim, Trump floated the intertwined falsehoods that the Democratic-funded Steele dossier triggered the probe (a lie) and that there was no legit basis for its genesis (also a lie).
This has renewed pressure on Republicans to sound the alarm that they would view any effort to remove Mueller as intolerable. With a few exceptions, most of them did nothing of the kind. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s, R-Wis., declaration that Mueller should be left alone was conspicuously tepid. Senate GOP leaders and many top Republicans on the committees investigating the Russia affair remained silent.
Remember the larger context: Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared that there was no need for legislation to protect Mueller, because (he said) there is no effort “on the part of the White House to undermine the special counsel,” so Mueller “seems to need no protection.” Now that Trump himself has declared the Mueller probe illegitimate, there is no indication that McConnell’s thinking has changed.
From the very outset of his presidency, Trump has been testing what he can get away with in terms of hamstringing or derailing the probe. He has done this repeatedly.
--Last March, Trump ordered the White House counsel to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the probe with the explicit purpose of getting Sessions to protect him from it. Trump publicly declared his anger at Sessions over what he perceived as disloyalty toward him.
--Last May, Trump fired his FBI director, James Comey, after unsuccessfully trying to control his handling of the investigation, which led to Mueller’s appointment.
--Last June, Trump ordered his White House counsel to fire Mueller, which failed when the counsel threatened to quit.
--Earlier this year, Trump wanted the Nunes memo released to give him pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who currently oversees the Mueller probe, apparently to replace him with a loyalist.
Again and again, Trump actually did commit flagrant abuses of power for the express purpose of constraining or derailing an investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. The efforts toward Sessions failed - but Trump then tried to hound Sessions out of the job, almost certainly with the aim of installing someone who would protect him where Sessions did not. Trump’s successful ouster of Comey failed in the sense that it led to Mueller’s appointment - but Trump then tried to get Mueller fired. That failed, too - but now Trump is openly attacking Mueller’s investigation as illegitimate.
We can infer from this that, while Trump did back down temporarily after some of these failures to hamstring the probe, those failures did not constrain him from trying again, and again, and again. True, Trump might not take the final step of trying to remove Mueller. He might listen to those around him - and the occasional congressional Republican, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C. - who are telling him that this would fail catastrophically.
But Trump has apparently concluded that those issuing warnings of such dire consequences are wrong and that his instincts are right. (As Jonathan Chait notes, those instincts are all pulling Trump toward an effort to try to remove Mueller.) And Republicans are saying little to nothing to disabuse him of that notion.
Don’t take my word for it. The White House has now basically affirmed this to be the case.
* WHITE HOUSE ISN’T HEARING ‘OUTCRY’ OVER MUELLER: On CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” White House legislative director Marc Short was asked about Sen. Jeff Flake’s, R-Ariz., strong defense of Mueller. He replied:
“’I’ve not heard a lot of outcry from Republicans. In all due respect to Jeff Flake, I’m not sure as far as him representing the Republican Party, couldn’t get re-elected in his own state today.’”
Yep, that’s all true. Short went on to insist that trying to remove Mueller isn’t on the table. But what message will Trump take from this lack of an outcry?
After all, Short himself said, revealingly, that the most prominent voice warning Trump against targeting Mueller no longer represents the Republican Party. Why would Trump not translate this idea into a belief that he has a mandate from Republican voters to try to remove Mueller?
* TRUMP ‘DOESN’T NEED’ THE ADULTS IN THE ROOM:The Times also reports that Trump now believes he doesn’t need to rely on people such as chief of staff John F. Kelly, economic adviser Gary Cohn or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson any longer:
“His closest aides . . . say Mr. Trump now feels he doesn’t need the expertise of Mr. Kelly, Mr. Cohn or . . . Tillerson . . . If he once suspected they were smarter or better equipped to lead the country and protect his presidency, he doesn’t believe that now.”
Well, that’s reassuring.