Trump's Self-Contradictory Defense

Is the special counsel looking at the president? Did Trump fire James Comey on his own or because of a recommendation? On key questions, the White House can’t choose what story it wants to tell.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Donald Trump sent one of his attorneys, Jay Sekulow, out on Sunday to hit the major politics talk shows. Sekulow nearly completed the Full Ginsburg—he missed only ABC’s This Week, on which he appeared last Sunday—but aside from that achievement, it didn’t go so well.

Sekulow insisted that President Trump was not under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. This denial was somewhat difficult to believe, given that the president himself had tweeted on Friday, “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” And indeed, Chuck Todd and Jake Tapper did their best impressions of Jeremy Paxman, lifting eyebrows and squinting in incredulity at Sekulow’s claims. “So the president said, ‘I am under investigation,’ even though he isn't under investigation?” Tapper queried. The wily (and bemused) Wallace even got Sekulow to say both that Trump is and is not under investigation.

Aaron Blake speaks for many observers when he writes, “It was a tough day for a man with an impossible job. If White House press secretary Sean Spicer has the worst job in Washington, Sekulow might have the second-worst. And it showed on Sunday.” But in his contradictory claims, Sekulow isn’t so much struggling against the president’s words so much as he is reflecting Trump’s own incoherent response to the investigation.

Trump and his team can’t decide whether or not the president is under investigation. They can’t decide whether media reports about the investigation are fake news, or whether they justify the president firing off missives from his turbocharged Twitter account. They can’t decide whether Trump fired FBI Director James Comey of his own volition or on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. They can’t decide whether Trump welcomes the investigation as a chance to clear his name or disdains it as a kangaroo court.

The president isn’t under investigation, Sekulow told John Dickerson, “because we've received no notice of investigation. There has been no notification from the special counsel's office that the president is under investigation.” While there’s no guarantee that Sekulow is telling the truth, or even that he’s in the loop, this is plausible—though it doesn’t explain the lawyer telling Wallace that “now he's being investigated by the Department of Justice because the special counsel under the special counsel relations reports still to the Department of Justice.”

Instead, Sekulow argued that Trump was simply reacting to a report in The Washington Post stating that the Mueller, a former FBI director, was investigating the president for obstructing justice. This, too, is plausible—though not encouraging. Why would the president attack his own deputy attorney general publicly and lend credence to a report that he (allegedly) did not know to be true? And moreover, how can the president lambaste the press for pumping anonymously sourced “fake news” at the same time that he is taking anonymously Washington Post reports at face value?

In fairness to Sekulow, Trump’s “I am under investigation” tweet was befuddling, in that none of it is true. On the one hand, he seems to be referring to Rosenstein as “the man who told me to fire the FBI Director”; yet it is Mueller, not Rosenstein, who is (depending on whether you believe the conflicting reports of Jay Sekulow, Donald Trump, and Jay Sekulow) investigating Trump. It is true that Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel, and it is also true that he alone has the power to fire Mueller, though Sekulow’s claim that Trump is “being investigated by the Department of Justice because the special counsel under the special counsel relations reports still to the Department of Justice” is the sort of reasoning that gives legalese a bad name.

But what about Trump’s claim that Rosenstein told him to fire Comey? That, too, is subject to dispute. Rosenstein is an accomplished lawyer, and his memo reads as very carefully worded, unmistakably pointing toward firing Comey without ever making that explicit. But then again, who cares what Rosenstein wrote? Trump told Lester Holt in May not only that the decision was his alone, but also that he’d come to it before he received the memo.

“What I did is I was going to fire Comey, my decision,” Trump told Holt, going on to praise the same deputy attorney general he now attacks.I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [Rosenstein] made a recommendation. He’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy, the Democrats like him, the Republicans like him, he made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”

Trump wants to be seen as a bold leader, making his decisions without need of pesky aides—except when he wants to pass the buck and let a staffer take the heat for a decision that might be politically (or legally) damaging to himself.

All of this is symptomatic of Trump’s general inability to pick a strategy for responding to the investigation. Recently, he has repeatedly described it as a witch hunt, and a set of GOP talking points recommended that Republican surrogates criticize the whole exercise as a fishing expedition and ask how long it was going to roll on. But those statements are at odds with congressional Republicans’ own approach, possibly an attempt to slow-walk the inquiry, which is to say that the investigation needs to be able to develop gradually. And as Bob Garfield noted on On the Media over the weekend, the investigation has barely begun by the standards of similar cases (from Whitewater to Benghazi)—and besides, fishing expeditions tend to catch fish. In the past, however, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said the president “welcomes” the investigation, seeing it as a chance to clear his name.

The lack of a single, coherent strategy bodes ill for Trump as the investigation moves forward—whether he is currently a target or not. Veterans of the Bill Clinton impeachment have recently become frequent presences in the press, and a couple lessons come from their recollections. One is that Clinton survived thanks to the fact that his approval ratings remained high, whereas Trump’s are already very low. A second is that Clinton triumphed because his staff were able to craft a coherent, disciplined message and to present the president not as an angry aggressor but as the hapless victim of vindictive opponents.

Yet Trump continues to believe he is best served by going on the attack and improvising his strategy from moment to moment. On Friday, the Associated Press reported that Trump is increasingly angry about the investigation in private, even shouting at televisions playing bad news. That might not help much, but it’s probably not any less effective than his public communications have been.