President Trump’s regular professions of admiration for autocrats and tyrants reveal something about his personality and character, an impulse toward brutal tactics and a desire for obsequious praise from underlings and supplicants. But in a more immediate way, they express something else: jealousy. Trump has ascended to the most powerful position on earth, and unlike the Vladimir Putins and Kim Jong Uns of the world, he’s still constrained, by laws and a Congress and even the media, telling him what he can and cannot do.
This is obviously frustrating for him, and at times, that frustration bursts forth:
In case it isn’t clear, that’s the president of the United States telling the attorney general to shut down an investigation into the president’s campaign and its cooperation with a hostile foreign power, along with other crimes that have already been uncovered. It’s spectacularly inappropriate, to be sure. But more than anything else, what Trump is demonstrating is his own impotence.
Now that might sound to you like a president who would be not only willing but eager to obstruct justice in order to get himself off the hook. But Trump’s attorneys are here to tell you that you’d be wrong:
But in an interview Wednesday, two of Trump’s lawyers said Trump was not ordering Sessions to take any specific action.
“The president has issued no order or direction to the Department of Justice on this,” Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said, adding that the president is allowed to express his opinion on Twitter.
“I think it’s very well-established the president uses tweets to express his opinion,” added Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. “He very carefully used the word ‘should.’ “
To a degree, they’re correct in that his tweet isn’t a direct order, no matter how laughable the idea may be that Trump’s word choices are “careful.” On many occasions, Trump has made it clear that he would like to see special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation shut down, and that he wishes Sessions would do it in order to protect him. He has said that if he knew Sessions would recuse himself from the investigation — which Sessions had no choice but to do, as a high-ranking official of the Trump campaign who had his own contacts with the Russians, contacts he was less than forthcoming about — he would never have made him attorney general.
But it’s important to keep in mind how helpless Trump is right now. Sessions isn’t going to fire Mueller, because he has recused himself from the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller, isn’t going to fire him either. While the president could fire Sessions and then replace him with someone who would fire Mueller, that would be difficult to do, as Trump may already understand.
A new attorney general would have to be confirmed by the Senate, and you can bet that during their confirmation hearings, they would be asked specifically and repeatedly about whether they had any conversations with the president about the Mueller investigation. Before Trump ever interviewed a potential attorney general, his aides would surely have explained to the president that if he raised the issue of the investigation, the nominee would have to testify that they had discussed it (or at least refuse to answer the question, which would be the same thing) and, as a result, would probably not be confirmed.
That puts Trump in something of a box, and it may explain why he hasn’t fired Sessions already. Add to that the fact that Trump’s congressional defenders, the ones who have been doing their darndest to undermine Mueller, are a bunch of nincompoops who couldn’t successfully engineer the ordering of a pizza, much less the destruction of a special counsel.
The opening of Paul Manafort’s trial, furthermore, even if it deals primarily with things that happened before Manafort took over the Trump campaign, serves as very high-profile evidence that the Mueller investigation has borne some rather substantial fruit. With each passing day, and each new indictment, it becomes more ludicrous to argue that the investigation is much ado about nothing.
So all Trump is left with is the ability to rant and rave about how unfair the investigation is to him. That’s not nothing, particularly since he gets a gigantic assist in that effort from Fox News and the rest of the conservative media. His own fate may ultimately be a political question more than a legal one, decided not in a courtroom but in the 2020 election and perhaps in the impeachment process. So public opinion matters a great deal.
But that’s not enough for Trump. He doesn’t just want to convince his own supporters that the Mueller investigation is illegitimate, he wants to use his own power to reach out and crush it. But he can’t. And it’s driving him nuts.