President Trump and his advisers want you to believe that the conclusion of the Mueller investigation amounts to much more than just “total exoneration.” It will also help Trump get reelected, because it validated his argument that the probe was an illegitimate effort to remove him, allowing him to go on offense against the “deep state” cabal behind it.
As one top Trump campaign official is now boasting, “the investigators will be investigated,” and “the tables are turning,” which is something “the campaign will continue to point to.” Trump’s effort to unleash law enforcement on his political foes doesn’t just represent a newly aggressive push into authoritarianism. As Trump’s campaign is openly and casually proclaiming, it’s also key to his 2020 strategy.
It’s strange, then, that Trump does not want special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to appear before Congress. After all, if he did, Trump’s Republican allies could subject him to their typically withering cross-examination skills, mercilessly unmasking the truth about the man at the center of this deep-state plot for all the nation to see.
Why on Earth would Trump willingly pass up such a fabulous opportunity?
Trump unleashed two tweets on Sunday, calling on Mueller not to honor the Democratic request for his testimony. Trump claimed Mueller had found “NO COLLUSION” (a serious distortion) and “NO OBSTRUCTION” (a flat-out lie) — and said: “No redos for the Dems!”
Meanwhile, we just learned that Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, defied the deadline set by Democrats for releasing the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying materials. Democrats are now preparing to hold Barr in contempt.
What ‘the tables are turning’ means
The idea that Trump is on offense against the investigators is encapsulated in the phrase “the tables are turning." This is a new Trumpworld talking point. Trump himself just used it, while claiming the only criminality involved in Russiagate was by Democrats.
Barr is apparently all in on this table-turning. Barr has has said he’s investigating the “spying” on Trump’s campaign, subtly propping up the idea that the probe was grounded in nefarious deep-state intent. Last week, Barr cast doubt on the investigation’s genesis and lent support to the idea that Hillary Clinton was the real colluder.
As Brian Beutler and Jonathan Chait detail, Barr’s past (backing up the Iran-contra pardons) and his willingness to validate Trump’s narratives (he blessed the fake Uranium One scandal) raise reasonable suspicions that Barr will willingly carry out Trump’s authoritarian designs, whether for instrumental purposes or as a true believer.
You’d think Mueller’s congressional testimony would provide a great opening to build the case for doing so. Indeed, the New York Times reports that some around Trump want Mueller to testify for precisely this reason:
The special counsel, they say, would most likely face tough questions from Republicans about two F.B.I. officials, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who in text exchanges were deeply critical of Mr. Trump as they were investigating Russian interference in the election. Those questions would undercut Mr. Mueller’s investigation, those close to the president say, and allow them to paint it as a partisan attack on Mr. Trump.
But the reality is that if and when Mueller does testify, it will all but certainly fortify the investigation’s legitimacy in the public mind, not undermine it. And it will likely deal another massive blow to Trumpworld’s alt-narrative.
Opposition to Mueller testimony gives away the game
Trump probably can’t stop Mueller from testifying. Barr has previously said he’s open to it — only days ago, Trump even said this was up to Barr to decide — but even if Barr shifted, Mueller soon will no longer be a Justice Department employee, meaning he’d likely be free to testify.
Indeed, Robert Bauer, the White House counsel under Barack Obama, pointed out to me that Trump has not said he’s directing Barr to prevent Mueller’s testimony, suggesting he sees the writing on the Capitol wall.
“I would assume his lawyers will be, or are, telling him (1) that he cannot put his attorney general, whom he would not want to lose, in the impossible position of having committed that Mueller would testify, only to be overruled by Trump and 2) resistance is futile, because eventually Mueller will testify,” Bauer emailed me.
If so, Trump’s tweets urging Mueller not to testify appear more feckless and panicky than anything else. But beyond this, Trump’s very opposition itself gives away the game.
If and when Mueller does testify, he will likely reiterate his report’s account of the genesis of the investigation: that the FBI initiated it after “a foreign government contacted the FBI about a May 2016 encounter with Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos,” in which Papadopoulos indicated Russia had offered to help the Trump campaign with damaging information on Clinton.
Mueller may well publicly speak to the ways his report detailed how the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally” from that Russian help, and the campaign’s efforts to — yup — collude with it. If Mueller is asked why he declined to exonerate Trump on obstruction, he might somehow let it be known that he did, in fact, establish extensive evidence of criminality.
Nor is aggressive questioning of Mueller about those Strzok-Page texts likely to work for Trump. Remember: Each time this or that revelation about them was greeted by Trump as a “BOMBSHELL,” they ended up being buffoonish duds.
It’s possible, of course, that Barr will carry out Trump’s authoritarian directive to investigate the investigators. But Mueller’s testimony won’t build the case for this effort. It will only reveal it as that much more corrupt and lawless.