(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

President Trump has spent a lifetime pondering the complexities of moral desert, and so he is outraged that the man who operated as his personal fixer for so long may escape justice:

At the same time, Trump feels that true heroes should be given their due:

Trump thinks the person who is incriminating him (former lawyer Michael Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress to conceal Trump’s business dealings with a hostile foreign power that was trying to sabotage our election on his behalf) is a weasel who should go to prison for as long as possible. By contrast, the person who is staunchly refusing to incriminate him (longtime adviser Roger Stone, who adamantly denies that there has been “collusion”) is a profile in courage.

Obviously the actual substantive content of Cohen’s conduct and subsequent admission of wrongdoing is of zero interest to Trump. The president doesn’t think Cohen should go to prison because of what he did, but rather because Cohen is trying to evade prison time by spilling the beans about him. If Cohen were refusing to do this, and had never reached any kind of plea deal with the special counsel, Trump would be hailing Cohen for having “guts,” the way he now is doing on behalf of Stone.

As numerous lawyers have now pointed out — including George Conway, who happens to be the husband of someone named Kellyanne Conway — Trump’s tweet about Stone may constitute witness tampering, because he appears to be trying to induce Stone to withhold testimony against him.

Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller is scrutinizing phone calls between Trump and Stone to determine whether Stone communicated advance knowledge he allegedly possessed of the WikiLeaks operation carrying out Russia’s sabotage of our election to help Trump win. Stone is denying he passed any such knowledge on to Trump.

By hailing Stone’s “guts,” Trump may be letting him know that if he holds firm, he can count on a presidential pardon. As it is, only a few days ago Trump let it be known that a pardon for former campaign chair Paul Manafort is also on the table.

The dangling of pardons shows once again that Trump wants to preserve for himself as many options as possible — including the most flagrant abuses of power — against Mueller as his investigation nears its climax. But Trump’s call for maximum prison time for Cohen appears to take this into new territory. As Julian Sanchez points out, Cohen is about to be sentenced by a judge, and:

Trump is demanding an outcome in a specific case from a judge, who he has the power to reward with appointment to higher office. The outcome he is demanding would, of course, have the effect of deterring other witnesses’ cooperation with Mueller.

As Sanchez also notes, however, Trump weighing in at this juncture creates other problems. If the judge imposes a harsh sentence on Cohen, it will look like he was pressured into doing so by Trump; if he goes easy on Cohen, it could look like he was deliberately bucking Trump’s pressure. Either way the process will inevitably look tainted.

I’m going to submit that for Trump, this is a feature, not a bug. It’s exactly what Trump wants. In every conceivable way, Trump has sought to persuade his supporters that our processes and institutions do not render neutral or legitimate outcomes. In 2016 he declared that the outcome of the election would only be legitimate if he won. When the outcomes of the statewide Florida races were in doubt, Trump insisted demands for a full vote count in Democratic areas amounted to an effort to steal the elections, claiming that a full count inherently could not render a legitimate outcome, unless the Republicans won.

Trump has flatly declared that “any” polls that reflect badly on him are “fake news.” Early on in his presidency Trump sent out a flack to proclaim that the monthly jobs numbers are only real when they are good for him. When the Mueller investigation appears to be producing revelations Trump dislikes, the probe is inevitably a “hoax.” Unflattering reporting about Trump is also always “fake news.” A recent extended and revelatory exchange between Trump and Fox News’s Chris Wallace resulted in Trump essentially declaring that only he is the arbiter of truth.

If Mueller does end up finding extremely serious misconduct, Trump almost certainly will not be indicted. But his political survival will turn to no small degree on his ability to maintain a base of support among voters who do not believe what our institutions are telling them. For them this will leave Trump as the only legitimate authority.

Read more:

Randall D. Eliason: Mueller may uncover a conspiracy — or just a coverup

The Post’s View: The Mueller investigation keeps offering important revelations. It must continue.

Greg Sargent: After the latest Mueller news, these corrupt Trump moves look much worse

Nelson W. Cunningham: If Matthew Whitaker hinders the Mueller inquiry, would we even know?

Jennifer Rubin: Trump should be freaked out right about now