At a lunch with television news anchors on Thursday, President Trump was asked about the appointment of Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election — and any possible ties to the Trump campaign. CNN’s Jake Tapper shared Trump’s response.
“I believe it hurts our country terribly,” he began, “because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country. And we have very important things to be doing right now, whether it’s trade deals, whether it’s military, whether it’s stopping nuclear — all of the things that we discussed today. And I think this shows a very divided country.”
Before we continue, let’s parse that. This is a return to one of the hallmarks of the Trump transition period: The insistence that, since he won, the entire country should unify — around him. From Nov. 9 to Jan. 19, Trump repeatedly called for the country to unify — while intentionally antagonizing his opponents and making no political concessions that might inspire Democrats to want to work with him. It was a natural continuation of a campaign in which he never moderated the hard-right positions that carried him through the primary; even in office, he hasn’t moderated them. That’s his prerogative, but it’s not going to unify the country.
You may be wondering how the appointment of special counsel shows that we’re divided. The answer, as he made clear as he kept talking on Thursday, is that he blames Democrats for Mueller’s appointment.
“It also happens to be a pure exercise for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the electoral college being slanted so much in their way,” he said. “That’s all this is. I think it shows division, and it shows that we’re not together as a country. And I think it’s a very, very negative thing. And hopefully this can go quickly, because we have to show unity if we’re going to do great things with respect to the rest of the world.”
Trump has this tic where he internalizes his arguments and smooths them out until you hit a point where unpacking what he’s saying requires knowing how he got there in the first place. Like “the electoral college being slanted so much in their way.” This is a reference to commentary during the campaign that the upper Midwest was considered a Democratic bulwark — a blue wall, it was called — thanks to those states voting Democratic consistently. Trump’s exaggerated the importance of those states as part of his effort to exaggerate the importance and magnitude of his electoral vote win — 306! 306! — which is itself part of his effort to downplay the fact that he lost the popular vote by a historic margin. That’s the context for those nine words.
Trump’s comments about the Democrats, though, are the broader point here. Trump has repeatedly blamed the Russia investigation on his political opponents. To wit:
Again, the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
This needs less unpacking. Trump is using his standard say-whatever strategy to accuse Democrats of ginning up the Russia investigation, knowing that some not-insignificant part of his base will buy it. They shouldn’t.
The investigation into Russian meddling originated on at least two tracks. In early October, the Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence issued a highly unusual joint statement alerting the public (and state elections commissioners) to activity by the Russian government that appeared to be aimed at disrupting the election. This was the first major warning sign about Russia’s efforts — and it came more than a month before the election. In fact, it came a day before the “Access Hollywood” tape was released, a period during the campaign when Democrats weren’t particularly worried about winning in November.
Meanwhile, the FBI was investigating contacts between members of Trump’s campaign staff and Russia — an investigation that former FBI director James B. Comey indicated began even earlier, in June. Before, that is, Trump was even his party’s official nominee.
Clearly, Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee was not Trump’s fault, nor was it his fault that his former campaign manager Paul Manafort may have had questionable links to that country (though, of course, it is Trump’s fault for hiring him despite that). But as the campaign, transition and his presidency unfolded, Trump kept doing things to make the Russia problem worse, not better.
- He repeatedly denied any Russian involvement in the hacking while on the campaign trail, which only served to draw negative attention to him.
- In July 2016, he explicitly called for Russia to release any emails it may have hacked from Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
- As information about Russia’s meddling was revealed after Election Day, Trump’s response was defensive, as below — again, likely a function of his insecurity about having lost the popular vote.
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
- Those initial revelations prompted Trump to launch a jeremiad against those leaking government information — an obsession that merged with his belief that allies of President Barack Obama were behind the news to cause him to embrace the idea that Obama had wiretapped him during the campaign.
- That claim is what led to his ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) having to recuse himself from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of meddling, after it was revealed that he received information from White House staffers.
- It followed the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign, a meeting that Sessions didn’t mention when asked under oath during his confirmation hearings.
- And, of course, Trump’s allegiance to former national security adviser Michael Flynn similarly raised eyebrows, given revelations that Flynn, too, had inappropriate conversations with Kislyak — conversations that led to his ouster from the administration.
- Trump’s firing of Comey last week was the culmination of the pattern, given that Comey was overseeing the FBI’s investigation.
Beyond all of that, it’s worth remembering the genesis of the appointment of Mueller. The order was signed by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, after Sessions recused himself from any Russia investigation thanks to that erroneous Senate testimony. Rosenstein had been in that position since only April 26 of this year — meaning he was appointed to it by Trump. What’s more, Rosenstein was the person that Trump asked to write a memo justifying Comey’s firing, despite it being clear (Rosenstein told the Senate on Thursday) that Trump planned to fire him anyway.
If you consider all of that evidence and think it’s the Democrats’ fault, I have to say I find that perplexing.
This, too, is very Trump, though. Trump only rarely on the campaign trail admitted any fault, once in an interview with Megyn Kelly and once during a speech after his second staff overhaul. Trump’s M.O. has always been to fight, fight, fight, however he can.
In his current position, that might not be the best strategy.