Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump’s ongoing interactions with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation are proceeding on two very different tracks. Even as Trump projects feigned confidence in public, feeding his gullible supporters tweets about how the probe is a “witch hunt” and nothing but a Democratic “hoax,” the behind-the-scenes talks between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller’s investigators betray the opposite of confidence, instead revealing obvious fear of what Mueller has learned so far, and what more he may uncover.

Case in point: Even as Trump brashly called on his attorney general to fire Mueller, the talks unfolding between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller’s team over whether Trump will sit for an interview did not suggest that members of Trump’s team feel as though they’re in a strong position.

The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig reports that Mueller has privately agreed to limit the questions that Trump would be asked in an interview, in order to get him to agree to sit for it:

Mueller’s team suggested that investigators would reduce the number of questions about potential obstruction of justice they would ask in person and instead seek some answers in written form, according to one person.

Remember, Trump lawyer [sic] Rudy Giuliani had previously insisted that if Trump were going to sit for an interview, questions about what Trump did as president to obstruct the probe — such as firing James B. Comey as FBI director — would have to be off the table entirely. Now, even with this new offer from Mueller, Trump’s lawyers are still saying that an interview might not happen. As Leonnig reports:

Giuliani has repeatedly warned that such an interview would expose Trump to legal danger, saying that if Trump made any misstep or if Mueller later determined that other witnesses were more credible than Trump about what he had said and done, the president could face accusations of perjury.

This is a remarkable position. What Giuliani really fears is that Trump will lie about conduct that Mueller is examining for potential obstruction of justice. Giuliani had previously expanded on this fear, insisting that Trump genuinely doesn’t believe he actually pressed Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — which could lead Trump to deny to Mueller that it ever happened — and that Mueller might conclude otherwise, subjecting Trump to charges of lying to investigators.

But whether Trump believes he said this or not, Giuliani plainly fears that Mueller will believe the testimony of other witnesses to Trump’s conduct over that of Trump himself. It bears pointing out that there is a lot of this conduct, far beyond what Trump said about Flynn. There was Trump’s demand for Comey’s loyalty. There was Trump’s decision to fire Comey when that loyalty wasn’t forthcoming. There was Trump’s repeated rage sessions at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to protect him from the probe, which include a direct order from Trump to his White House counsel to stop Sessions from recusing himself, which failed, causing Trump to erupt in fury once again at Sessions for failing to shield him. There was Trump’s similar order (which also failed) for the firing of Mueller.

There are witnesses to Trump’s conduct in many of these cases. Trump reportedly had conversations with top White House officials that indicated he knew Flynn was under criminal investigation when he pressed Comey to drop the probe into him. There are reportedly written memos attesting to this. Comey kept contemporaneous, detailed notes of his conversations with Trump, and Comey confided in other officials about them at the time. And so on. Thus, when Giuliani says he fears Mueller will believe other witnesses, should they contradict Trump’s testimony about his conduct, there’s good reason for it. This is not a position of strength.

There’s an additional wrinkle to this: Trump’s lawyers don’t just fear that he will lie to Mueller about his efforts to scuttle the investigation; it’s very likely that they also fear that Trump might tell the truth about those efforts, which could also be incriminating. Now, establishing obstruction of justice is a delicate business. Prosecutors seek to establish “corrupt intent,” such as a desire to protect oneself and one’s cronies from investigation. They will try to establish a pattern of behavior that reveals this intent.

But Trump’s repeated public statements have arguably already revealed this intent (and, crucially, that Trump isn’t at all shy about revealing that intent) such as when he admitted on national television that he fired Comey over anger at the probe. Indeed, when Trump openly called on Sessions to end the Mueller investigation, his lawyers were forced to engage in absurd parsing to argue that this wasn’t an order, but merely was his “opinion.” Even if that were true, it would still go to establishing his intent.

Trump’s real problem is almost certainly that he can’t lie to Mueller about his conduct or tell him the truth about it. This does not mean Mueller will definitely find that Trump’s obstruction was criminal (which might not happen) or that Trump will be indicted for it (which certainly won’t). But either way, Mueller will still submit a report on Trump’s obstruction (and collusion as well), and anything Trump says will figure into that report. Meanwhile, looming in the background is the increasing possibility of a Democratic takeover of the House, and with it, the possibility of impeachment. Mueller’s report will depict Trump’s conduct in great new detail that we can only guess at.

Given what we know now, it’s hard to see how Trump’s testimony to Mueller can help him. It likely can only make the overall picture of his conduct look more damning — whether he lies to Mueller about that conduct, or tells him the truth about it.

* ATTACKS ON THE PRESS ESCALATE: The New York Times has a good overview of Trump’s escalating attacks on the media, and what is coming next:

In Tampa … several journalists described an atmosphere of hostility that felt particularly hard-edge. And far from condemning these attacks on the press, the president and his team have endorsed them. … Now, news organizations are anticipating an unnerving autumn, as their reporters prepare to fan out across the country for a fresh round of Trump rallies before the midterm elections.

Imagine what the hostility will start to look like if it increasingly appears that Trump’s party is going to lose the House.

* OUR ELECTION IS NOT SECURE, EXPERTS WARN: The Post has a good overview of expert warnings that our elections are not secure against another round of outside sabotage. The voting machines may be more secure, but:

Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters through misleading social media postings are likely to have grown more sophisticated and harder to detect, and there is not a sufficiently strong government strategy to combat information warfare against the United States, outside experts said. … technology companies in general have struggled to curb the flow of disinformation and hacking and have received little guidance from the U.S. government on how to do so.

It’s shocking, just shocking, that the president who has polluted our politics with lies to such an unprecedented degree would shrug at the prospect of more outside disinformation warfare.

* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT OHIO ELECTION: McClatchy reports that Republicans believe they are at risk of losing next Tuesday’s Ohio special House election:

Both parties view the race between GOP nominee Troy Balderson and Democratic nominee Danny O’Connor as a toss-up — and that’s a warning sign for GOP candidates already bracing for a difficult election environment, especially in suburban districts that will help determine control of the House this fall.

Trump carried this district by 11 points in 2016, so even if the Democrat loses but comes very close, that bodes well for Democrats this fall.

* TRUMP HEADS TO OHIO: The president is set to campaign this weekend in the Ohio race between Democrat Danny O’Connor and Republican Troy Balderson, but Politico notes that this carries risks:

But Trump’s involvement carries some risks for Balderson. The president’s approval rating in the district is only 46 percent, according to the Monmouth poll, compared with 49 percent who disapprove. And a majority of independents, 59 percent, disapprove — one reason the poll shows O’Connor with an 18-point lead among independent voters.

And Trump will alienate suburbanites. But the GOP needs Trump to energize the base: Monmouth finds 66 percent of Democratic voters with high interest, vs. 55 percent of Republicans.

* ADMINISTRATION TO WEAKEN FUEL STANDARDS: Reuters reports that the administration today will move to revoke California’s authority to set its own strict vehicle emissions standards, as it pushes forward with its own effort to do that nationally:

The proposal … will escalate the administration’s legal battle with California and about a dozen other states that have adopted California’s emission rules, and account for about a third of the U.S. auto market. … Democrats hope to make any rollback a key part of the 2018 congressional elections.

The administration’s broader effort is to weaken the national standards put in place by President Barack Obama, and if California were to keep its own standards, it would bifurcate the auto market.

* TRUMP LIES IN PITCH FOR VOTER ID: Trump said the other day that you need identification if “you want to buy groceries.” The Associated Press corrects the record:

No photo is required to purchase items at retail stores with cash or to make routine purchases with credit or debit cards. Identifications are required to purchase limited items such as alcohol … or … to pay with a personal check. According to the National Grocers Association’s most recent data, the use of checks as a percentage of total transactions dropped … to 6 percent in 2015,

And of course, the bigger lie is that we need voter ID to combat voter impersonation fraud, which is basically nonexistent.

* AND HANNITY VS. ACOSTA ISN’T A FAIR FIGHT: Lickspittle Trump propagandist Sean Hannity blasted CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was abused and heckled at a Trump rally, as a “liberal partisan hack” who is being screamed at for a good reason. Acosta’s response:

It’s worth noting that despite Hannity’s claim that “the people” are siding with Trump against the media, majorities actually trust the media over Trump to tell the truth.