We don’t yet know whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will accuse President Trump of obstruction of justice. But if he does, we may look back upon Wednesday as a case-in-point as to why.
The New York Times is reporting on yet the latest episode that could play into the obstruction portion of the Russia investigation: Trump’s conversations with two aides, White House counsel Donald McGahn and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, about their discussions with Mueller’s team.
Neither contact is considered a smoking gun or illegal in and of itself, but each could play into the obstruction case that has built over time and could speak to Trump’s desire to influence the direction of the investigation. The McGahn situation might take the cake when it comes to Trump’s oft-demonstrated blend of chutzpah and unwieldiness.
Here’s what the Times’s Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman reported:
In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed, the people said. ...
Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. McGahn unfolded in the days after the Jan. 25 Times article, which said that Mr. McGahn threatened to quit last June after the president asked him to fire the special counsel.
That’s right: Trump’s response to a story about him possibly obstructing the investigation by trying to fire Mueller was to ... try to do something else that might be construed as obstruction — manufacturing a false denial.
Not only that, but Trump actually mused about possibly firing McGahn if he didn’t comply. The report states that then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter “told Mr. McGahn the president had suggested he might 'get rid of’ Mr. McGahn if he chose not to challenge the article.” So Trump’s response to a story about McGahn possibly quitting over Trump’s effort to fire Mueller was to threaten to fire McGahn?
In one ill-advised episode, Trump combined his propensity for ignoring his lawyers’ advice about avoiding even the appearance of impropriety with his tendency to lash out in indiscriminate and nonsensical ways. Trump apparently reasoned that the same White House counsel who threatened to resign over the Mueller episode would cave to a threat of termination in the face of another possible effort to obstruct. That’s not terribly logical.
The situation harks back somewhat to Trump inserting himself in the drafting of that misleading statement Donald Trump Jr. issued about his meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign. As in this case, Trump was seeking to create a false picture of a key event that was the subject of the Russia probe — albeit on the collusion side of the investigation. Trump has also repeatedly done things that only seemed likely to increase his legal jeopardy — sometimes unnecessarily so — including pressing law enforcement officials for loyalty and admitting he fired FBI director James B. Comey with the Russia investigation on his mind.
But rarely do we have an example of Trump pivoting so quickly from one poorly conceived gambit right into another one. This may not take down Trump, but it is showing the mentality that’s turned a short story of potential collusion into a narrative of potential obstruction.