The special counsel investigation of President Trump increasingly reminds me of the classic 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Butch and Sundance, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are unstoppable outlaws in the Wild West until suddenly they meet their match. One day, while robbing a train, they are astounded to see a locomotive pull up towing a single rail car. Out come a half-dozen men on horseback. The train robbers scatter, but not before two of them are shot dead by the horsemen.
This “superposse,” as it’s called in the script, then undertakes a relentless, almost otherworldly pursuit. Butch and Sundance try every stratagem they can think of to escape. They divide up their gang. They hide in a brothel. They climb rocks. They even try to enlist in the Army. None of it works. The superposse, seen only at a distance, keeps advancing with eerie calm, neither slowing down nor speeding up. The outlaws become rattled as they realize they cannot get away. “They’re beginning to get on my nerves,” Butch says. “Who are those guys?”
“Those guys” turn out to be a collection of the best lawmen in the West, led by a legendary sheriff named Joe Lefors, who have been assembled to finally hunt down the bandits. Robert S. Mueller III is the real-life incarnation of Lefors, and his special counsel team is the real-life superposse. Like Lefors in the movie, he never says a word. Instead, he lets his work speak for itself.
Mueller has won 35 indictments and six convictions — including of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates. You can make that 37 indictments and eight convictions if you count Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, and Sam Patten, a lobbyist linked to Manafort, who pleaded guilty in other jurisdictions to charges arising from Mueller’s work. Cohen’s plea deal was particularly significant, because he implicated the president in a conspiracy to violate federal campaign-finance laws. Even if Mueller were to end his probe tomorrow, he already would be judged one of the most successful special counsels in history.
Mueller’s latest triumph came last week when Manafort, having already been convicted of eight felony counts, agreed to plead guilty to two more counts to avoid another trial. In return for having the other charges dropped, Manafort pledged to cooperate with the special counsel. Trump and his lawyers have adopted a mantra of “no collusion,” as if that were the only crime of which he could possibly be guilty, but Manafort represents collusion in the flesh: He is a longtime agent for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who worked closely with a suspected Russian intelligence operative.
As Mueller’s investigation advances, methodically and relentlessly, Trump is acting as rattled as Butch and Sundance — minus, of course, the charm, wit and good looks of Redford and Newman. Trump’s Twitter feed is a primal scream against the “Rigged Witch Hunt” and the “17 Angry Democrats.” On Tuesday, he even called the FBI a “cancer in our country.” He must be wondering “Who are those guys?” because none of his ploys are working. Mueller is still on his tail, and the public, according to a recent CNN poll, is far more supportive of the special counsel’s conduct (50 percent) than of the president’s (30 percent).
Butch and Sundance were driven in their desperation to jump off a cliff into a raging river and then flee to Bolivia to escape the superposse. In his desperation, Trump is being driven to obstruct justice. The latest example: His demand that the FBI declassify top-secret files relating to the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election. Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin calls this “the President’s most serious assault on the Justice system yet,” and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) quotes FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein as telling him that the release of these documents would be “a red line that must not be crossed as they may compromise sources and methods.”
Here’s the worst part, from Trump’s standpoint: The release of these documents is unlikely to help him any more than the release of a memo from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) or of a redacted version of the surveillance warrant for former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page helped him. The more facts that come out, the more damning they look for the president.
Trump may finally be driven to go out in a hail of (symbolic) gunfire a la Butch and Sundance. In his case that would mean pardoning everyone involved and firing the attorney general and deputy attorney general so that he can install sycophants who will get rid of Mueller for him. But if he were to reenact the “Saturday Night Massacre,” he would only strengthen the case for impeachment — and it appears likely there will be a Democratic-controlled House to pursue such an inquiry in January. There could even be a small Democratic majority in the Senate. As with Butch and Sundance, Trump’s end will be dramatic — but it is also looking increasingly likely.