“An attack on our country.”
That’s a blunt, unqualified phrase that you associate with planes dropping bombs or tearing into skyscrapers. It’s also an apt description of Russian interference in the 2016 election: something that President Donald Trump has steadfastly refused to accord the proper language or outrage.
But a lawful raid on his attorney’s office and hotel room is what prompted the president to use those immensely weighted words. They’re a signal – make that a siren – of how cornered he feels, how monstrously large his belief in his own persecution has grown and what a dangerous situation America is in.
He claimed “a whole new level of unfairness” in Robert Mueller’s investigation into any ties between his presidential campaign and Russia. That yanks us to a whole new level of uncertainty about what happens next.
The sacking of Mueller? A purge at Justice? Some unrelated swipe at perceived enemies or random assertion of potency by a man who cannot bear any image of impotence and is always ginning up distractions, as both a matter of strategy and a function of temperament?
If you doubt those scenarios, you’ve paid no heed to his presidency so far. And you’re denying the rawness and rareness of that extraordinary language during those extraordinary minutes at the White House on Monday night, when he called Mueller’s team and, presumably, top officials at the FBI “the most biased group of people,” accusing them of a prejudice and partisanship for which there is no compelling evidence.
He was telling us, yet again, not to trust our own government. And he was reminding us, in shocking fashion, about his readiness to sell (and buy) fictions if they serve his self-interest, which he reliably puts before all else.
His thrashing and wailing continued Tuesday morning – on Twitter, of course. “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” he tweeted shortly after 6 a.m. Then, a minute later: “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”
We haven’t been in a safe space since Nov. 8, 2016, but we’re in especially dangerous territory now. Trump seems closer than ever to decisions that could plunge the country into crisis. And there’s nothing in his bearing or behavior to suggest that he cares all that much about sparing America that chaos and pain.
From his understandably panicked perspective, investigators keep reaching further, wider and deeper into corners of his life that he didn’t expect to be invaded.
He has long consoled himself with the mantra that there was “no collusion,” “no collusion,” “no collusion.” But in a manner that’s entirely legal, not to mention an echo of President Bill Clinton’s experience, the investigation has traveled in additional directions and examined additional wrongdoing.
Having subpoenaed the Trump Organization, Mueller and his team now have business records. Having executed a warrant for material in the possession of Michael Cohen, federal officials now have documents belonging to an insider who is not just Trump’s lawyer but also his longtime fixer and friend.
Even though Cohen is the apparent focus of their interest, Trump, too, must feel hideously exposed. This is a man who refused, despite intense pressure, to release his tax returns, as candidates before him had done. Now information that may be much more private, and much more damning, is in strangers’ hands.
A single sentence in a story about the Cohen raid by my colleague Matt Apuzzo brilliantly hinted at Trump’s vantage point, from which he sees any moat around him vanishing and his castle under siege. Apuzzo wrote: “His longtime lawyer is being investigated in Manhattan; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is facing scrutiny by prosecutors in Brooklyn; his former campaign chairman is under indictment; his former national security adviser has pleaded guilty to lying; and a pair of former campaign aides are cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”
It’s in that context that Trump, during a meeting that was supposed to be about Syria, went on and on about the “disgrace” (he used that word seven times) of Mueller’s investigation, toyed with the idea of getting rid of him, excoriated Jeff Sessions anew, once again branded James Comey a liar and, for good measure, kicked around Hillary Clinton some more. It was the full martyr complex and all the greatest hits in one rant. Mike Pence sat stone-faced on one side of him, John Bolton without much expression on the other. It’s hard to imagine either of them having the clout or rapport with Trump to calm him down.
There is no Hope Hicks anymore, no Rob Porter, no Gary Cohn, no H.R. McMaster: The ranks of people who either gave Trump a sense of comfort and stability or sought to steer him away from his most destructive outbursts have thinned. He’s navigating this passage more alone than ever. No matter how much he mutters to himself about his own genius, he must be scared.
But not half as scared as the rest of us should be.