Trump Is Winning His PR Battle With Mueller. So What?
President Donald Trump’s accusers and their allies woke up this morning fretting perhaps for the first time that perhaps their quarry would elude special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s net. Axios’ Mike Allen noted in the lead item of his morning newsletter that the “anti-Robert Mueller chorus” has ground louder and more strident thanks to critiques and broadsides by people like Mark Penn, Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz, Republican members of Congress, media mouths like Sean Hannity and other Trump stalwarts.
“Hour by hour, these voices try to chip away at the case against Trump and the justification for it all,” Allen wrote of what he calls the “sabotage strategy.” The anti-Mueller movement has worked like a “powerful echo chamber … to smear Mueller, muddy the waters, and make the investigation a red vs. blue issue.” And it’s working. The efforts have turned public opinion, and the White House looks like it’s going to get away with staging a classified “briefing” for Republicans about FBI informant Stefan Halper—a breach of the Justice Department’s traditional reluctance to share its sources.
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If the Allen item had been a Drudge Report alert, it would have come with a siren.
Concurrently, Trump has boosted the temperature of his Twitter account to boiling in hopes of flash-frying the special counsel. He’s done nothing wrong, he says; it’s the “Criminal Deep State“ and the Democrats and Hillary Clinton who have colluded, conspired against him, and assigned government spies against him. “SPYGATE” he calls it (a label Trump pal Bob Kraft, the New England Patriots owner whose team allegedly spied on the New York Jets, will be all too happy to transfer).
Trump’s frothing has rattled his most disciplined opponents, typified by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who writes today of Trump “bringing his party, and the powers it commands, around to his warped manner of thinking.” At the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote that Trump has become emboldened by the fact that he’s been able to get away with everything before—withholding his taxes, sex with porn stars and pinup queens, coddling Vladimir Putin, habitually lying—that he figures he can get away with anything. At Vox, Matthew Yglesias looks at a poll showing that most Americans don’t know Mueller has uncovered real crimes and blames the press for not better conveying this to the public.
The dangers of Trump muddying the investigative waters with his alt-reality of his deflections, conspiracy-mongering, and demagogic public displays of control shouldn’t be blithely dismissed, of course. Allen notes the antecedent for Trump’s present strategy seems to be the Clinton White House’s approach during its rumble with independent counsel Ken Starr back in the late 1990s. Attack and smear, obfuscate and defame, the Clinton playbook advised, and its methods led to a stalemate.
I’m as prone to panic as the next guy inside the Beltway who gorges on the news. Then why haven’t I burrowed into my bomb shelter to await the Trump apocalypse whose impending signs have been sighted everywhere? Why am I sipping sweet whiskey in my Barcalounger, confident that the Trump gang will get a serving of justice? To begin with, the comparison of the Starr investigation with the Mueller probe doesn’t hold up. What “worked” for Clinton can’t work for Trump because the underlying facts are so different. Ken Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton was a simple one, primarily designed to support articles of impeachment against the president for one count of perjury and one of obstruction of justice. There was no greater network of crimes involving foreign money and influence. The Mueller probe, so far at least, has been a complex criminal one, leading to six guilty pleas, not counting the this week’s capitulation by Evgeny Freidman, Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s longtime business associate in New York.
Mueller’s investigation claims to have uncovered $30 million laundered by Paul Manafort alone and untold amounts of evaded taxes. A pattern of criminal lying by the Trump crowd has been proved. As National Review’s David French summarized on Tuesday, all have conceded that the Russians mucked with the 2016 election. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, accepted millions from Putin allies. Anybody who can read a newspaper knows that his top aides made themselves suspiciously receptive to offers of Russian dirt. Some busied themselves arranging Russian back channels—for what ultimate purpose, nobody seems to know—after the election. Good lord, the Russians aren’t even the whole story. We just learned that during the campaign, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Persian Gulf emissary who offered him illegal assistance in winning the election. New evidence of Trump’s people selling influence to foreigners arrives almost daily—as if ordered for special delivery for this column, BBC News reports today that Trump attorney Cohen arranged a 2017 meeting between our president and Ukraine’s president and collected at least $400,000 for his trouble. (French turns a nice phrase when he writes of Trump’s people concealing “their motivations behind a bodyguard of lies.”)