Opinion writer


President Trump and his legal team appear to have leaked special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s questions as a set-up to accomplishing a broader goal: To create a pretext for avoiding a sit-down interview. We don’t yet know whether Trump will go through with this, but if he does, and if Mueller tries to subpoena him — which is a real possibility — that could lead to a legal and political standoff that could crank up this crisis to Defcon One.

Which is why it is so dangerous that Trump’s team has reportedly concluded that Trump is currently winning the battle with Mueller in the minds of voters.

CNN reports this morning on Team Trump’s thinking. Trump’s lawyers have concluded that they can win the legal standoff over whether the special counsel has the authority to compel a sitting president to testify. But beyond this, they also believe they’re winning the political argument:

Their political argument also has changed. While the lawyers were originally in a let’s-get-this-over-with mode, they now believe that time is on their side — especially with the 2018 elections looming. They believe that Trump has done a good job discrediting the investigators and the investigation itself.

It’s always possible that this is just bluster and spin. But there are reasons to believe Trump himself probably does think this. He believes only the polls that show he is popular, and in recent weeks, he has conspicuously abandoned his cooperative tone toward the Mueller investigation, switching to a barrage of attacks on the probe as illegitimate and on Mueller himself as corrupt. Trump is getting bombarded by voices out of #Foxlandia telling him that he is the victim of a Deep State Coup, and he likely believes they represent majority opinion.

Meanwhile, whatever the skeletal remains of Trump’s legal team actually believe, they are likely telling him what he wants to hear on this front as well. After all, if they believe a sit-down interview would be treacherous, what better way to persuade him to avoid it than telling him he has already vanquished Mueller — that the public agrees the probe has been discredited and will cheer him on as he flouts the demand for an interview?

This morning, Trump himself basically underscored all these points. Trump tweeted his frequent claim that the charge of collusion is a “hoax” but added something new: He said the probe for obstruction is a “setup & trap.” He approvingly quoted a legal expert he heard out of #Foxlandia today claiming Mueller’s questions are “an intrusion” into the president’s power to fire anybody at will. That’s a reference to the fact that Mueller’s questions focus heavily on Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.

Taken all together, the emerging stance of Team Trump is that any effort to question Trump about his true intent in trying to derail an investigation into himself is inherently illegitimate. It’s nothing more than a “setup & trap,” an “intrusion” on his powers. Trump is under no obligation to account for any of it. It isn’t just that he is not obliged to submit to our institutional processes, because those are corrupt. It’s also that he is not obliged to account for his conduct before the American people in a manner that respects our institutions and the rule of law, because (he appears to believe) he has persuaded them of his core claim that this whole process is itself fundamentally illegitimate.

This is why it’s so important to stress that the public does not agree with him on any of this. It is often said that Trump is “winning,” simply because he has persuaded a majority of Republicans that the investigation is a witch hunt, and all he needs is his base to fall back on. He has successfully rendered the truth irrelevant. Yes, for Republicans, perhaps this is true. But polls show that large majorities support the investigation into both collusion and Trump’s finances, and majorities say Mueller’s investigation is legitimate and being conducted fairly.

Trump almost certainly does not believe those polls. Which makes a serious confrontation all the more likely. That’s bad. But worse, it would mean Trump believes (though he wouldn’t put it this way, of course) that he has successfully persuaded the American public that he is above accountability and the rule of law. Fortunately, he has not, and precisely because Trump is trying to spread confusion on this point, we need to say so loudly and often.

* MUELLER FLOATS SUBPOENA FOR TRUMP: The Post reports that in early March, Trump’s lawyers told Mueller’s team that the president isn’t obliged to sit for an interview. And then this happened:

Mueller responded that he had another option if Trump declined: He could issue a subpoena for the president to appear before a grand jury, according to four people familiar with the encounter. Mueller’s warning … spurred a sharp retort from John Dowd, then the president’s lead lawyer. “This isn’t some game,” Dowd said, … “You are screwing with the work of the president of the United States.”

Now Trump’s team is pondering what to do next. If they decline the interview, this is probably headed to the Supreme Court.

* TRUMP’S TEAM LAYS PRETEXT TO DODGE INTERVIEW: The above dispute led Mueller’s team to submit to Trump’s lawyers a list of topics for questioning, which have now leaked. The Post story reports on Trump’s reaction:

Trump fumed when he saw the breadth of the questions that emerged out of the talks with Mueller’s team, according to two White House officials. The president and several advisers now plan to point to the list as evidence that Mueller has strayed beyond his mandate and is overreaching, they said. “He wants to hammer that,” according to a person who spoke to Trump on Monday.

As we noted yesterday, this is the game plan: To use this list of questions to lay the pretext to decline the interview and possibly even to try to shut down the probe.

* WHY TRUMP MIGHT AVOID INTERVIEW: Legal experts tell the New York Times that there are specific reasons in this case why Trump might not want to face Mueller’s questioning:

Many of Mr. Mueller’s questions … are so broad that Mr. Trump would need a detailed command of a range of issues. And, complicating efforts to try to adequately prepare him for such an encounter, the president’s lawyers do not know everything that the special counsel has learned. … In many instances, Mr. Mueller wants Mr. Trump to explain his knowledge of, reactions to or communications about private events where there were other witnesses.

Here’s your regular reminder that we don’t have any idea what or how much Mueller has established.

* REMOVING MUELLER WON’T HELP TRUMP: Politico reports that even if Trump were to somehow remove Mueller, the investigation would continue down other tracks and the facts would come out:

Justice Department officials and FBI agents could simply pick up where a fired Mueller left off. State attorneys could bring their own charges against Trump and his associates. Even as a private citizen, Mueller might be able to publicize or share his findings with Congress.

And Congress could actively try to release Mueller’s findings, though that would probably require a Democratic takeover of the House first, because Republicans won’t do that.

* TRUMP KEEPS ON LYING ABOUT COMEY MEMOS: Trump loves to say that Comey leaked classified information in his memos. Glenn Kessler takes a detailed look at the claim and finds that it’s nonsense. Importantly:

The president further tips this into Four Pinocchio territory by accusing Comey of committing a crime by releasing an unclassified memo.

This is crucial to Trump’s argument that efforts to hold him accountable are illegitimate. And it, too, is nonsense.

* DRIP-DRIP-DRIP FOR SCOTT PRUITT CONTINUES: The Post scoops that a trip that Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt took to Morocco was partly arranged by a lobbyist who had won a lucrative contract from that country to promote its interests:

Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist who has known the EPA administrator for years, worked for months with Pruitt’s aides to hammer out logistics … The four-day journey has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and the EPA’s inspector general, who is investigating its high costs and whether it adhered to the agency’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.”

Given that Pruitt is deeply hostile to that very mission, even as he’s used his perch for all kinds of other dodgy activity, I’m going to predict the answer to that question will be no.

* AND REPUBLICANS THINK TRUMP IS RUNNING THINGS WELL: A new Politico/Morning Consult poll finds that a large majority of Americans think the Trump administration is a hot mess, with one exception:

More than three in five voters, 62 percent, say Trump’s administration is running very or somewhat chaotically — nearly twice as many as the 32 percent who say it’s running very or somewhat well. A majority of Republicans, 68 percent, say the Trump administration is running well. But that sentiment is shared by few Democrats (9 percent) and independents (25 percent).

That 25 percent of independents is abysmally low, but maybe Republicans can win the midterm elections with only Republican voters.