President Trump made a fair bit of news Wednesday, between declaring that he is “looking forward to” talking to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and laying out a possible immigration deal. But we may be burying the lead here.
When asked whether he's concerned about Mueller's fairness in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump explained that there was no collusion and no obstruction of justice. And then he extrapolated on the obstruction part in a highly questionable way.
“Here's what we'll say and everybody says: No collusion. There's no collusion. Now they're saying, 'Oh, well, did he fight back?' " Trump said.
After some cross-talk, Trump finished his thought to ABC News's Jon Karl: “You fight back. Jon -- you fight back. 'Oh, it's obstruction.' ”
Trump's meaning seems to be clear: What people see as obstruction of justice is, to him, just fighting back. And that fits with his brand as a fighter and a counterpuncher and all that.
But there's one major problem with that: The actions at-issue here aren't supposed to be aimed at fighting back against the investigation. The argument Trump's lawyers are likely to make is that Trump did things like firing FBI Director James B. Comey for reasons unrelated to the Russia probe.
The argument with Comey, for instance, would seem to be that he was terminated for the reasons laid out in that memo — namely, that he had done a poor job and lost the confidence of his bureau. The argument when it comes to asking Comey for loyalty would seem to be that it wasn't directly related to the Russia investigation. The argument on asking Comey to take it easy on Michael Flynn would seem to be that it wasn't Trump “fighting back,” but rather a nebulous expression of support for a friend and ally. The idea that any of this amounted to Trump “fighting back” would seem to prove that Trump intended to influence the course of the investigation.
Hypothetically, the White House could argue that these things were indeed intended to influence the investigation but that they weren't legally obstruction of justice. (Indeed, one of Trump's lawyers has argued that a president can't even technically obstruct justice.) But it seems to be giving away at least half your defense to concede that the actions in question were aimed at “fighting back.”
In some ways, it harks back to when Trump blurted out during that interview with NBC News's Lester Holt that the Russia investigation was, in fact, on his mind when he fired Comey. But even then, Trump didn't explicitly say it was his motivation. His comments Wednesday would seem to suggest that he did view stuff like firing Comey as fighting back, even if he thinks it wasn't technically obstruction of justice.
About the best alternate explanation I can see for Trump's comments is that he was saying people were upset that he was doing other things to fight back against the Russia investigation — things like making public comments in his own defense — and so they crafted an obstruction narrative against him.
But that doesn't really have anything to do with the things he'll talk to Mueller about. And if Trump tells Mueller that his motivation in these actions was to “fight back,” that'd be a really bad starting point for their interview.