On March 24, Attorney General William Barr released a summary of the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that stressed positive news for President Donald Trump. The redacted text of the report would not be released until April 18, more than four weeks later.
Over those four weeks, Trump and his supporters made the most of their one-sided information advantage. They blared “No collusion! No obstruction!” They dismissed the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia as a “hoax.” They demanded punishment of those in government and media who had investigated and reported on those connections.
In retrospect, that was not a very smart thing to do.
The smart play would have been to pocket the legal win—no more indictments—and then try to rise above the controversy. The president could have given a speech analogous to the one President Ronald Reagan gave after being absolved of direct personal responsibility for Iran-Contra: Acknowledge mistakes, apologize for them, vow that lessons would be learned. Condemn the Russian interference in 2016, and vow to harden future U.S. elections against any repeat. Meet critics more than halfway, move forward, try to consign the controversy to the past.
But that is not the Trump way. The Trump way is to escalate, always.
Over the four weeks between the Barr letter and the release of the redacted Mueller report, Trump kept insisting that the Mueller report said more than it did. It said, in effect: We didn’t find sufficient evidence to charge your campaign with conspiracy, and our internal Department of Justice policies forbid us from charging you with obstruction. He wanted it to say: You did nothing wrong. He wanted it to say: Actually, Donald, you were the real victim here—and Hillary Clinton the true criminal conspirator.”
Trump has tried to close that gap by lying about it—and by demanding that other people lie, too. When they don’t and won’t, Trump gets angry. And when Trump gets angry, he takes to Twitter.
Trump got extra angry Sunday night. Uncheered by Mother’s Day, the president launched into a sequence of rage tweets that included the line: “The FBI has no leadership.” Trump has fired one FBI director, James Comey, for looking into the Russia matter. He fired an acting director, Andrew McCabe, for the same apparent reason. Apparently, he is now gunning for the present director, Chris Wray.
Why is Trump angry? Trump disjointedly tweeted over linked messages: “The Director is protecting the same gang…..that tried to……..overthrow the President through an illegal coup. (Recommended by previous DOJ) @TomFitton @JudicialWatch”
Trump wants the FBI to endorse his own theory of victimhood—and it won’t. Worse, the FBI was embedded in the Mueller investigation. The FBI received, and still holds, whatever information the investigation gathered about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, including potential answers to the all-important question: Why? Why was Vladimir Putin so eager to help Trump into the presidency? Why did Russia care so much, and run such risks for him?
The answer may be indicated in an underappreciated pair of sentences on page 76 of Volume II of the Mueller report: “As described in Volume I, the evidence uncovered in the investigation did not establish that the President or those close to him were involved in the charged Russian computer-hacking or active-measure conspiracies, or that the President otherwise had any unlawful relationship with any Russian official. But the evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal or political concerns.”
So long as the FBI remains in independent hands, the president will remain gripped by those concerns.
What Trump means by leadership is compliance. He wants an FBI director who serves him personally the way Attorney General Barr has served him personally. So long as the FBI retains its integrity, Trump feels unsafe. He cannot close the case, because he keeps hearing scratching sounds from inside. He cannot move on, because he keeps looking back in fear. His next move? He’s already telegraphing it: another attack on the independence of law enforcement.
Trump today welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House. I keep thinking on this trip of the shrewd insight offered by a Budapest observer when I visited Hungary in 2016: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.” Trump holds that power, and he is determined to wield it.