John Dowd. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Opinion writer

While you were distracted by President Trump and Joe Biden threatening to fight each other in a septuagenarian slapdown, this happened:

John Dowd, a personal attorney to President Trump, resigned his position Thursday amid a shake-up in the president’s legal team as Trump has sought more firepower to deal with the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

The resignation came Thursday, according to three people familiar with the decision.

In an email to The Washington Post, Dowd wrote, “I love the President and wish him well.”

Dowd’s departure was a largely mutual decision made after the president lost confidence in his ability to handle special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and Dowd became frustrated with Trump’s recent efforts to bring on new attorneys, they said.

Dowd, who was ostensibly leading the ever-growing squad of lawyers defending the president in the Russia investigation, made news last week when he called for Mueller’s probe to come to an end, a suggestion obviously meant to placate the president.

Before that, he was perhaps best known for claiming hilariously that he had written a Trump tweet in which the president said he fired national security adviser Michael Flynn because he had lied to the FBI, which could be evidence of obstruction of justice, since not long afterward Trump asked FBI Director James B. Comey to go easy on Flynn. The notion that Dowd for the first and last time sent out a tweet from the president’s account that just happened to be incriminating was so ridiculous that no one bothered to pretend it was anything other than Dowd lying to protect his client.

Perhaps those kinds of humiliations got to be just too much for Dowd. But still, his departure is yet more evidence that the president will continue to approach the Mueller investigation not as a legal problem but as a PR problem. Which may not be quite as stupid as it seems.

Dowd’s departure is not a surprise. The New York Times recently reported that he “has contemplated leaving his post because he has concluded that he has no control over the behavior of the president.” That same article said that Trump has been musing to associates about whether he should fire another of his lawyers, the ornately mustachioed Ty Cobb, who has insisted that Trump should approach Mueller with a spirit of cooperation to demonstrate that he has nothing to fear. Trouble is, Trump has lots to fear from Mueller, particularly now that the special counsel is looking into his finances. In addition, Trump’s legal team recently asked Republican superlawyer Ted Olson — just the kind of guy who could have a friendly, professional relationship with Mueller — to join them, and Olson said thanks but no thanks.

One can’t help but assume that Trump hired people such as Dowd and Cobb, established Washington lawyers, on the recommendation of the more reasonable people around him, who argued that Trump needs experienced pros who can see the investigation through to its conclusion with minimal drama. On the other hand, Trump has also filled out his legal team with people like such as Jay Sekulow and his latest hire, Joe diGenova, who were almost certainly Trump’s idea, since they have the distinction of appearing often on Fox News.

If Trump is turning away from the advice of people like Dowd and Cobb, and toward people like Sekulow and diGenova (who recently opined that “A group of FBI and DOJ people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime”), it’s likely that his legal advisers will be telling him what he wants to hear. That includes: There’s a “deep state” conspiracy against him, the entire investigation is illegitimate, attacking Mueller on Twitter is a brilliant strategy, and Trump should go ahead and let Mueller depose him, since he’s such a genius that Mueller wouldn’t lay a glove on him.

Any ordinary lawyer would say that all that is not only ridiculous but also likely to maximize the trouble Trump gets in. So why do I say it isn’t as stupid as it seems? Because no matter what he does, the odds that Trump will be criminally indicted are very small. (There’s some dispute about whether a sitting president can even be charged with a crime.) So in the end, while Mueller will almost certainly be sending some people to jail, Trump himself won’t be among them. Trump’s personal culpability will be judged by the political system — in congressional hearings, in the 2020 election and possibly through impeachment.

If that’s the case, the greatest protection Trump has is not smart lawyers who can keep him out of trouble but a Republican Party that sees its own self-interest in staying unified behind him. So far, the party has; you can see it in the House Intelligence Committee’s aggressive effort to plunge its head into the sand on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Having Trump’s lawyers out in public condemning Mueller and crying that the whole thing is a witch hunt serves to reinforce those partisan bonds, which means that Trump won’t be impeached unless Democrats take the House (and perhaps not even then), and certainly couldn’t be convicted by the Senate.

That doesn’t mean the strategy is without risks, as it does sometimes lead Republicans so far from the facts that the cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable; that’s why you find some Republicans grudgingly admitting that Russia did interfere in our election and was trying to help Trump, even if they strenuously deny that there was any collusion with the Trump campaign. As retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) puts it, Trump’s support from the GOP base is “more than strong, it’s tribal in nature.” Other politicians who are campaigning among their Republican constituents, Corker said, tell him that “people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not.”

Which no doubt warms Trump’s heart, reassuring him that as long as he keeps the party behind him, he’ll be fine, no matter what that big jerk Robert Mueller does, so he can stop listening to wet blankets like John Dowd and Ty Cobb. But don’t forget the old adage: A man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.