When news that the Justice Department had appointed Robert Mueller as a special counsel landed last night, the White House was reportedly as surprised as everyone else. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had only informed the president’s staff once the order was signed.
Whether that was true or simply spin, it didn’t last. Thursday morning, the president broke an unusually long Twitter silence to complain about how he had been mistreated:
With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
(That tweet replacing an earlier one that misspelled "councel.")
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
This administration has often struggled to coordinate messages—it offered three conflicting explanations for FBI Director James Comey’s firing in three days, and reportedly has not been helping congressional allies with talking points—but in this case, the message seems to have been shared, as Trump’s son Eric used a similar wording:
I was too! This entire thing is a witch hunt propagated by a failed political campaign. https://t.co/AhGBFdJjTI— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) May 18, 2017
This represents a return to the self-pitying note that Trump struck during a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday. Trump has long since abandoned the tradition that remarks involving the military be nonpartisan, using them to reminisce about his victory in November. On Wednesday, he added gripes to his spiel:
Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. I guess that’s why we won.
The complaint is, in addition to be somewhat distasteful for the occasion—he did at least send graduates off with the command to “Enjoy your life”—historically dubious, notwithstanding Trump’s “great surety.”
What of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, felled by assassins’ bullets? What of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Ford, and Reagan, who escaped assassination attempts? There’s some stiff competition for greatest witch hunt in U.S. political history, from the Palmer raids to the Second Red Scare. Bill Clinton would probably be willing to argue he had it worse. And Christine O’Donnell would like a word as well. It is unsurprising that a president who has demonstrated such a weak grasp of American history, from Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass, would struggle to effectively contextualize his own travails.
Trump is not wrong to suggest that Hillary Clinton and her allies have done their best to nudge the Russia story forward—in the recent book Shattered, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes write that Clinton insiders committed to that narrative within 24 hours of the election.
But they were only able to do that because Trump had given the theory credence throughout the campaign. He had praised Vladimir Putin, condoned the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, begged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, and hired Paul Manafort, an American operative in the Kremlin orbit, to run his campaign. Since the election, there’s only more circumstantial reasons to question ties. There were Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, new revelations about Manafort and another former campaign aide, Carter Page, and Trump’s revelation of classified information to Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an Oval Office meeting.
It is possible, as Trump says, that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. But if so, the president’s actions have only managed to create the impression that he is trying to hide something. He was painfully slow to fire Michael Flynn, his first national-security adviser, even as incriminating information piled up. Once he dismissed Flynn, he reportedly pressured Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into the retired general, opening himself up to accusations of obstruction of justice. He abruptly fired Comey on May 9, offering a transparently pretextual explanation before acknowledging that his frustration at Comey for publicly confirming a probe into collusion between the campaign and Russia was a factor.
Nor can Trump blame the appointment of a special counsel on the Democratic Party, let alone Hillary Clinton. The decision was made by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general whom Trump appointed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself after acknowledging he failed to disclose his own meeting with Kislyak to the Senate. And Rosenstein’s decision came as an increasing number of Republican lawmakers began to voice support for an independent investigation, given Trump’s possible political tampering.
It is true that there was never a special counsel during the Obama administration. But it’s hardly because the president got a free pass, especially after Republicans took over the House in 2010 and Senate in 2014. The GOP launched a series of investigations and inquiries, from Fast and Furious to Benghazi. The Benghazi probe eventually, indirectly helped bring down Hillary Clinton, whose private email account and server were revealed in the course of it—and whose “extremely careless” handling of classified material pales in comparison with what Trump told the Russian officials.
By contrast, Trump’s administration must now reckon with a special counsel less than four months into his tenure, thanks to the web of scandal around the president and, even more importantly, his own clumsy attempts to cut through it. As has been well-established by now, however, Trump never thinks it’s his own fault.