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Opinion Trump can’t stop blurting out his desire to obstruct justice

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Russia scandal is very much on President Trump’s mind at the moment, as evidenced by this morning’s Twitter tirade:

I’m not even going to bother with the false and ridiculous details of this rant, other than to note that when the president is using ALL CAPS to make his point, it’s pretty clear evidence that he’s the angry one.

And I suspect I know why. The president’s dismissal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointment of Matthew Whitaker to be acting attorney general — which was in large part, if not entirely, so that Whitaker could end or at least restrict Mueller’s investigation into the Russia scandal — is turning out to be a disaster. Whitaker’s appointment has produced a wave of embarrassing stories about the patent company he worked for that was shut down after allegations of fraud by the Federal Trade Commission. He’s even being mocked on late-night TV. Most importantly, Whitaker has now been hamstrung from fulfilling the purpose for which he was installed.

Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker is more constrained than you might think, says Post contributor and law expert Randall D. Eliason. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

You might object that I can’t know for sure that Trump appointed Whitaker so that he could go after Mueller. But let’s look at Trump’s own words. Wednesday, the president sat for an interview with the Daily Caller, a conservative website. In this remarkable excerpt, the interviewers ask him what his thinking is on a permanent replacement for Sessions, and after referencing a memo written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel affirming that Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is permissible, Trump suddenly shifts — unprompted — to talking about the Russia investigation:

THE DAILY CALLER: Could you tell us where your thinking is currently on the attorney general position? I know you’re happy with Matthew Whitaker, do you have any names? Chris Christie —
POTUS: Matthew Whitaker is a very respected man. He’s — and he’s, very importantly, he’s respected within DOJ. I heard he got a very good decision, I haven’t seen it. Kellyanne, did I hear that?
POTUS: A 20-page?
THE DAILY CALLER: It just came out right before this, sir.
POTUS: Well, I heard it was a very strong opinion. Uh, which is good. But [Whitaker] is just somebody that’s very respected.
I knew him only as he pertained, you know, as he was with Jeff Sessions. And, you know, look, as far as I’m concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had.
It’s something that should have never been brought. It’s an illegal investigation. And you know, it’s very interesting because when you talk about not Senate confirmed, well, Mueller’s not Senate confirmed.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what happened when Trump was interviewed by Lester Holt of NBC News in May 2017 and he blurted out that he fired FBI director James B. Comey because of the Russia investigation. Like the Daily Caller interviewers, Holt didn’t mention Russia at all in his question; he asked Trump about a report that he had ordered Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to write about Comey (seemingly to offer justification for firing him), and inquired about whether Trump had already decided to fire Comey when he got that report. Trump then said, “But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”

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Here we have two cases where Trump is asked questions about personnel moves at the Justice Department, and both times, without prompting, he makes it clear that he made the decision in order to quash the Russia investigation. He just can’t help himself.

The scenario Trump would have preferred for this whole thing would have been that the Whitaker appointment attracted little attention other than people saying, “Well, he seems like a capable fellow,” then Whitaker could either fire Mueller and shut down his investigation or find some other way to strangle it. But with Whitaker’s colorful past and his lengthy record of statements on TV criticizing the investigation before he joined the administration, everyone is now watching Whitaker closely, and if he moves against Mueller it will be considered a crisis.

Trump’s repeated insistence that the fact that Mueller wasn’t confirmed by the Senate somehow delegitimizes him may also be a tell that the confirmation issue is on his mind. When he does appoint a permanent attorney general, that person will be subjected to lengthy, detailed questioning about how he (and it will presumably be a man) plans to conduct himself with regard to Mueller — whether he has spoken to the president about the investigation, whether he believes there has been any misconduct on Mueller’s part, and so on. If he can’t answer those questions in a way that gives assurance of his objectivity, he might not get confirmed. Whitaker, on the other hand, has the benefit of not needing confirmation, so he won’t have to answer those questions.

But it may be too late. As each day passes, Mueller gets closer to reaching the end of his inquiries, and he has no doubt prepared for the moment when he’s fired by making sure the evidence he has gathered can either be passed to other prosecutors or made public in some form. According to CNN, Mueller has already begun writing his final report even as it looks like more indictments are coming.

It has been clear all along that Trump has desperately wanted to mount a frontal attack on Mueller, but he’s too impulsive to do it without telling everyone exactly what he’s up to, which then makes it harder to carry out his plan. He can’t even obstruct justice properly.