Donald Trump’s brand-new communications director got a glimpse of the challenge he faces this weekend. As Anthony Scaramucci toured the Sunday shows, promising a new era of better relations and positive vibes, his boss was firing off his most active string of Twitter complaints in some time, taking shots at Democrats, Republicans, the press, James Comey, Robert Mueller, and—for the second time in less than a week—his own attorney general:
So why aren't the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2017
The president’s choice of words to describe Attorney General Jeff Sessions is bizarre, though the condescending mockery matches the tone he often uses for adversaries. To paraphrase Trump, somebody’s doing the beleaguering, and that person is Trump himself, who railed at Sessions during an interview with The New York Times last week, saying he wished he hadn’t appointed him, and that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation was unfair to Trump.
The demand for a closer look at Hillary Clinton, however, is more significant, and appeared in several other weekend missives:
So many people are asking why isn't the A.G. or Special Council looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 e-mails deleted?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
...What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
My son Donald openly gave his e-mails to the media & authorities whereas Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted (& acid washed) her 33,000 e-mails!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
As Trump’s troubles deepen—as they continue to do, both politically and legally—he and his defenders have ever more frequently invoked Hillary Clinton as an excuse and a distraction. The more partisan precincts of Fox News, for example, continue to hammer away at Clinton’s emails, or to bury Trump-related news under buzzy headlines about the defeated Democratic presidential candidate. Conservative media has also tried to elevate an example of apparent inappropriate Democratic conversations with the Ukrainian government to the level of the Russia investigation; my colleague Uri Friedman parses that comparison here. On Monday, former Representative Jason Chaffetz strangely asked why Congress was questioning Jared Kushner, a top Trump campaign official who met with Russian nationals, and not Chelsea Clinton for Benghazi, an incident that occurred when the Clinton daughter was not working at the State Department, and which has also been extensively investigated. (The best guess is that Chaffetz is referring to emails Hillary Clinton sent her daughter around the time of the attack.)
This is a familiar rhetorical technique called “whataboutism”: Any flaw or critique is parried by pointing to some other individual’s own sins, imagined or real, equal or worse. The technique is a logical fallacy, since one person’s crimes do not excuse anyone else’s. Even if Clinton ought to be investigated, that doesn’t get Trump off the hook.
But Trump’s Clinton whataboutism is perplexing for two big reasons, both of which boil down to the fact that he is president of the United States. First, he evinces no understanding of why his situation as commander in chief is different from that of a defeated candidate. Second, his messaging ignores the fact that as president he is the boss of the attorney general and Justice Department.
Why does Trump get more attention than Clinton? Because he’s president, of course, but also because the allegations against him are new. Every time I write about Trump these days, I receive an email or several demanding to know why I’m not reporting on the uranium case. The answer is that I did: In early 2015, I wrote about the uranium as well as the broader ethical challenges of the Clinton Foundation and the miasma of scandals hovering over Clinton’s candidacy. One reason that the press is paying less attention to these matters is simply that they were already covered in detail, years ago.
Of course it’s also relevant that Clinton is now a private citizen, following her loss to Trump. Trump can’t stop invoking his victory in November 2016, but he also seems unwilling to reckon with the consequences of it. For example: The president of the United States receives much more scrutiny than failed candidates. That doesn’t mean that allegations against people who are not the president should not be investigated (beware double-whataboutism, a rhetorical tactic that should be left to professionals—or, even better, no one), but allegations against the president and his aides are also far more important because Trump is currently the nation’s chief executive and in a position of great power. This seems almost too obvious to state, and yet it is the most fundamental response to Trump’s complaints.
In enumerating the things that he feels ought to be investigated, Trump mentions her deleted emails, the uranium deal, the Russia reset, and her speeches, for which Clinton and her husband Bill received hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the emails were extensively investigated by the FBI, the director of which delivered a report that was stingingly critical of Clinton but also said there was no basis for criminal charges. Some analysts, including Nate Silver, believe that Director James Comey’s October 28 letter briefly reopening the investigation handed the election to Trump. Trump ought to know this, since his administration cited Comey’s overly public handing of the Clinton scandal as a reason for firing him, only for the president to then change his story and say he fired Comey over the Russia investigation. (The changing and badly incomplete stories offered by Trump and his son are another reason there’s so much focus on Russia.)
Cleared of a criminal investigation, Hillary’s emails, Russia reset, and speeches are all political sins, rather than legal ones. (Trump has misrepresented the uranium case in his public statements.) The U.S. system is designed to handle political and errors of judgment: It puts candidates to a vote. This works both ways. The president, unlike his aides, is exempt from background checks, on the basis that the American people have deemed him fit to view sensitive information. Voters rendered their verdict on Clinton’s decisions by not electing her. That’s the outcome Trump wanted, and yet he can’t seem to accept it.
But here’s the truly confusing part of this: If Trump wants the Justice Department to investigate Clinton, all he has to do is order that. Even before his recent lash-out at Sessions, Trump has been publicly critical of the Justice Department’s legal strategy in defending his travel ban (even as he repeatedly undercuts the lawyers with public statements). Not only that, but he’d be fulfilling one of his frequent campaign promises. As a candidate, Trump repeatedly said he’d investigate Clinton’s alleged crimes and to “lock her up.”
Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is not, as far as is known, pursuing an investigation into Clinton’s emails—although, as my colleague Adam Serwer notes, Mueller is entitled to look at more or less anything he likes. But Trump is sending mixed messages, as he has also tried to force Mueller into a narrow investigation using public threats.
There’s no reason Trump couldn’t instruct the Justice Department broadly to investigate any of these matters—although doing so might be politically disastrous. It would look like reprisal against a political rival, especially given the previous FBI investigation clearing Clinton; it would be a transparent stab at distracting from his own problems; and it might create a domino effect of problems at the Justice Department.
Start with Sessions. The root of Trump’s fury at Sessions is that he recused himself from Russia investigations. Sessions also pledged, during his Senate confirmation hearings, to recuse himself from any Clinton-related investigations, given his rhetoric about her during the campaign. Trump’s statements about Sessions have left the inescapable impression that the president wants to force Sessions out, though he reportedly rejected a resignation offer in June, and Sessions said last week he has no intention to resign now. Nonetheless, Mike Allen reports that Trump is considering sacking Sessions in favor of Rudy Giuliani, another former campaign surrogate. A Giuliani confirmation hearing, especially following a Sessions firing, could be explosive, and Giuliani would likely face pressure to also recuse himself from a Clinton decision.
Trump could go to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, though his relationship with Rosenstein is even worse. In the same interview in which he bashed Sessions, Trump (incorrectly) claimed that Rosenstein was a Democrat from Baltimore no one knew. In fact, he’s a Bethesda Republican who Trump nominated as deputy attorney general. But if the president instructed Rosenstein to open an obviously politically motivated investigation, he might refuse, and either resign or force Trump to fire him. Then the country would be sliding into Saturday Night Massacre territory, the same scenario that would likely happen if (or when) Trump attempts to fire Mueller.
Firing Sessions, much less Rosenstein, would probably be a political catastrophe for the White House. Yet Trump fired Comey, even though the political risks were great. At the moment, that gamble doesn’t seem to have paid off, since the firing led directly to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
Any such attempt to launch an investigation assumes that Trump really cares about Clinton’s alleged misdeeds, which is not necessarily the case. Part of this is simply Trump’s instinctive tendency, outlined by Peter Beinart last week, to compare himself to others. More than anything, however it seems to represent Trump’s need for a foil. Trump prospered as a politician because he was an underdog. He made his name falsely impugning President Obama’s citizenship. He rose through the crowded Republican field by first attacking Jeb Bush and then relentlessly mowing down the rest of his rivals—Liddle Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and the rest. Trump then used the same maneuver during the general-election campaign, playing himself against Clinton.
Now, however, he is no longer an underdog, and he is no longer an outsider. As president of the United States, he is the ultimate insider. The Democratic Party is adrift and largely leaderless, but in a perverse way that makes Trump’s messaging harder, since he has no one to use as a foil. The president has at times attacked Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama.* But none of these has taken the place that Obama and Clinton once filled for him. It’s lonely at the top, and even worse, there’s no one else to make fun of up there.