President Trump and his allies in the House have done just about anything they can to undermine Robert S. Mueller III's investigation and intimidate its leaders. They've questioned the Mueller team's neutrality. They've wrongly suggested the investigation was launched based on the Steele dossier or the leaking of classified information. They've attacked the FISA court process. James B. Comey was fired. Andrew McCabe was targeted and later fired. And there have been threats to get rid of basically everyone else in charge of it, including most recently Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
Mueller, it seems, isn't cowed. Neither, for that matter, is Rosenstein.
The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig and Robert Costa broke a big story Tuesday night, reporting that Mueller at one point threatened to subpoena Trump if he wouldn't voluntarily sit for an interview. Here's the scene:
... Mueller responded that he had another option if Trump declined: He could issue a subpoena for the president to appear before a grand jury, according to four people familiar with the encounter.
Mueller’s warning — the first time he is known to have mentioned a possible subpoena to Trump’s legal team — spurred a sharp retort from John Dowd, then the president’s lead lawyer.
“This isn’t some game,” Dowd said, according to two people with knowledge of his comments. “You are screwing with the work of the president of the United States.”
The flare-up set in motion weeks of turmoil among Trump’s attorneys as they debated how to deal with the special counsel’s request for an interview, a dispute that ultimately led to Dowd’s resignation.
Presidents have faced subpoenas before, but the mere threat of one ratchets up the confrontation between Mueller's and Trump's teams. Trump could also fight the subpoena or even plead the Fifth Amendment, though that may come with political costs.
That conversation, notably, came a few weeks before the FBI raided the office, home and hotel room of Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen on a referral from Mueller's investigation — a highly unusual move. The raid once again prompted Trump to claim that the Mueller probe is one big violation. When combined with the show-of-force raid on Paul Manafort, the subpoena of the Trump Organization and the number of guilty pleas Mueller's team has obtained for lying to investigators, it suggests Mueller isn't exactly being shy about using his authority to locate the skeletons.
The same could be said of Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and oversees the investigation. After news broke Monday night of an effort by conservative House Republicans to draft impeachment papers against Rosenstein, just in case they're needed, he issued a striking rebuke for a top Justice Department official. He first noted that “nobody has the courage to put their name on” the impeachment document and poked at its authors for leaking word of their efforts.
Then came this: “I think they should understand by now that the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” Rosenstein said. “We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law, and any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job.”
“Extorted.” The guy who is in charge of the scope of the Russia investigation just accused House Republicans of attempted extortion.
And he's not totally out of line. Intimidation has suited Trump well, in general. It certainly worked in the business world, and it has also worked well in the political world, where Republicans have repeatedly rebuked Trump and distanced themselves from him only to come to regret it. Trump's power with the base makes running afoul of him a very dicey proposition — so much so that Republicans rarely even try anymore. The mere threat of a presidential tweet is enough, in many cases.
It's not difficult to understand why Trump and his allies would try this tactic on their investigators, too. If you know that an adverse finding about Trump will come with a personal cost and with 35 percent of the country thinking you are a rogue prosecutor trying to take down a president with trumped-up charges, that could feasibly affect your conclusions, even subconsciously.
Law enforcement officials, though, are trained to be studiously neutral and to resist such pressure, and they have fewer personal political concerns than do members of Congress. Yes, they still have their personal lives and legacies to consider, including whether they handled this investigation fairly with the stakes being so high. But their jobs are less inherently political and, as James B. Comey showed, rising to the top ranks often rewards cocksureness (sometimes too much of it).
The images Mueller and Rosenstein are projecting are pretty cocksure.