Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, and the Russia scandal in general, are driving this president around the bend, to the point where he is setting himself against not just the government he leads but also the interests of the United States of America. And everything we’ve seen up to now suggests that it will only get worse.
Multiple reports today from journalists covering the White House paint a picture of a president who spent the weekend seething with rage — at Mueller, at the media, at members of his administration, at the fact that he couldn’t play golf because it would have been unseemly in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting — and lashing out at everyone in sight, up to and including Oprah Winfrey. This is not a man with a firm command of his impulses.
Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker described President Trump’s weekend:
In a string of 10 Twitter messages — which began after 11 p.m. Saturday and ended around noon Sunday, and which included profanity and misspellings — Trump opened a window into his state of mind, even as Trump’s representatives at a global security conference in Germany advised jittery allies to generally ignore the president’s tweets.
Trump’s latest attacks built on remarks last week in which he misrepresented the evidence revealed by Mueller. He tweeted falsely, “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election.” He blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for doing “nothing” to stop the intrusion. Trump rebuked national security adviser H.R. McMaster for publicly saying the evidence of Russian interference was “incontrovertible.”
And he held the FBI responsible for last week’s devastating shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 dead. Trump tweeted that the bureau was committing so many resources to the Russia probe that it missed “all of the many signals” about the shooter.
Many people are justifiably upset that the FBI received tips about the Parkland shooting suspect and didn’t follow up. But unless the Miami field office has been secretly running the Russia probe, I’m pretty sure that the agents involved in investigating Russia’s attack on American democracy are not the same ones responsible for fielding tips on troubled teenagers in Florida, as much of a threat as the latter might pose.
But Trump brings everything back to himself. If the FBI made a mistake anywhere, it can only be because it’s out to get Trump. There’s no issue — not even the murder of 17 people, most of them teenagers — that he won’t make about him. That’s why he’s so obsessed with the media, much more than the substance of any issue at hand: It’s the one place where he’s always the story and always the star.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Russia affair is that it would be so easy for Trump to act like something resembling a responsible president of the United States. He could simply say that whatever effect Russian meddling had on the 2016 election, it was unacceptable and the integrity of American elections must not be compromised. Then he could direct someone like Vice President Pence to lead a task force to make recommendations on how to secure elections in the future from both hacking and foreign propaganda efforts. Everyone would say that he’s doing the right thing, and he wouldn’t look so paranoid, dishonest and defensive.
But he can’t bring himself to do that. He obviously believes that if he even admits that Russia attempted to intervene on his behalf, then the legitimacy of his entire presidency will be called into question.
So at a moment when his own appointees atop the nation’s intelligence agencies are urgently warning that Russia is preparing to meddle in the 2018 and 2020 elections, their boss is all but telling them to stand down. No matter what Russia does, Trump won’t ever be willing to deal with the problem, because he’ll always feel that doing so will only validate his critics. Do you think Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that? I suspect he does.
It’s possible that various agencies of the government will, in spite of the president, manage to take reasonably effective steps to minimize the effects of Russian efforts to subvert our elections. But Putin must realize that he needn’t worry about anything that might require presidential approval, such as retaliatory actions aimed at punishing Russia for its assault on American democracy. That, we can be sure, isn’t going to happen as long as Trump is president. You don’t have to believe he’s being blackmailed or that he’s Putin’s puppet; all you need to know is that any admission of the truth of what happened in 2016 is intolerable for him.
We also should understand that whatever effort Russia makes at interfering in the 2018 elections will be happening at the same time as the Mueller investigation is reaching its critical point, which will make Trump even more resistant to doing anything about Russian meddling. As Mueller issues more indictments, Trump is certain to become angrier, more self-absorbed and more insistent that his great victory was pure and unsullied. This is a man who as of yesterday was still tweeting that “the Democrats, lead by their fearless leader, Crooked Hillary Clinton, lost the 2016 election. But wasn’t I a great candidate?”
With each new step Mueller takes, Trump will react by saying that none of it’s true and it’s all a conspiracy against him. When his aides tell him about some new Russian intrusion, he’ll ask not what’s necessary to defend the country, but how the whole thing is going to make him look. As he also tweeted yesterday, “They are laughing their asses off in Moscow.” At least he got that right.