The silence of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team is starting to have an effect.
Like a suspect sitting in an empty room and staring for too many hours into a bright light, President Donald Trump seems compelled to talk even when he’s not being asked any questions.
“There was no collusion with the Russians,” he keeps shouting as if to somebody, somewhere behind a one-way mirror.
He hears only silence coming back.
“We did nothing wrong!”
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
“Well, if there was collusion, it wasn’t illegal…”
“What about Hillary?”
With each tweet and with each denial, Donald Trump sounds more fraught and frantic to prove his innocence.
In the absence of real questions, he is answering questions thrown up by his own imagination and, arguably, they are proving just as revealing. Couched in his own insecurities, his denials resemble affirmations of something we don’t yet know – we have not seen the compelling proof that his presidency is illegitimate, that Russia conspired to put him in the White House, and that this is an administration founded upon the worst treachery in American electoral history. It might yet be the case that Trump walks away from events with a record as clean as he professes his conscience. Yet for an innocent man, Trump is doing his utmost to look guilty.
The latest silence from Robert Mueller’s office comes a year after the probe was set in motion by Trump’s firing of his FBI Director, the recusal of his Attorney General, and the decision by his deputy to hand the problem off to an independent counsel. There has been talk in recent days of Trump and his allies using the anniversary to call for the end of the investigation but, yesterday, the President of the United States took a different tack.
He tweeted: “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
It makes for a delicious study in the linguistics of pressure; of a man under immense strain and not coping at all well with it. The faux-official language of “hereby” carries no weight but the weight that Trump would wish it to carry. He might has well have tweeted: “I am the President and I have power”. Except, in this case, his power is severely limited and, where that power does exist, he has waited too long to assert it.
His best chance to act came at the beginning of the year when he could have used a cabinet shakeup to justify moving Jeff Sessions from the Department of Justice to some other high profile role in government. Sessions as Secretary of State would have been the kind of promotion that could have been spun well enough not to trip a constitutional crisis. “Not obstruction,” they could have cried, “but a justifiable promotion after a year in government.” Even if a new AG could not have fired Mueller, one more sympathetic to the President’s position might have presented Mueller with fewer options, narrowing the broad remit that Rod Rosenstein has thus far given the Special Counsel. If Trump wanted to control Mueller, that would surely have been the way.
The counter-argument is, of course, that Trump’s innocence is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than by his unwillingness to interfere. Yet if that were true, Trump’s attempts to muddy the waters make no sense. He should have laughed it off as anybody would do when accused of something outrageous for which they know they are innocent. “A pee-pee tape? What will they come up with next? Right. Next item on the agenda…”
It’s unlikely that anything will come of Trump’s attempts to smear the FBI. They may prove counterproductive in that it gives them an even greater determination to prosecute the case with ruthless efficiency. In the Deputy Attorney General, Trump has also found somebody able to play the ugly game of politics better than his other foils thus far.
James Comey, for all his virtues, was deeply flawed by his inability to see beyond his moral compass. His actions have repeatedly lacked a political savvy, not least the publication of his memoir which did little to advance his (or Mueller’s) case but gave Trump a chance to portray Comey as a man seeking fame and money.
The same cannot be said about Rod Rosenstein.
His response to the President’s latest demand is couched in political and legal subtlety. “If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes,” he said in a statement last night, “we need to know about it and take appropriate action.” It gives Trump what he wants whilst also shaping the response in a way that leaves open the possibility that the ultimate answer to the question will be not to the President’s liking. We saw similar gamesmanship when Rosenstein replied to Congress’s demands to see documents relating to the Russian probe. He asked for more time and then used that time to make some high-profile speeches in which he reaffirmed the DOJ’s independence.
The events of the weekend feel like we’ve moved on, yet little has really changed. We’ve been stuck in this loop for a while now. Trump keeps coming close to the decisive moment when he will fire or move Sessions and then lay a few obstacles in the path the Special Counsel. It happened at Christmas and then again around Easter when everybody was certain that Rod Rosenstein was about to be fired. According to reports, nobody believed this more than Rosenstein who had told friends he was resigned to losing his job. As it was, events moved quickly that weekend as Trump launched missile attacks on Syria. Not long after, the Michael Cohen story broke, presenting the President with a greater legal peril that distracted the White House long enough for thoughts of firing Rosenstein diminished.
That’s why it would be foolish to predict what comes next except to say that Trump is becoming entangled in something that isn’t entirely Robert Mueller’s doing. His tweets are beginning to resemble his spoken words: long, fractured, rambling, and filled with a breathless frustration that expresses everything about his impotence.
If you go back and listen to Richard Nixon’s tapes from the days of Watergate, you might see elements of this but you will also see a President who had two hands on the reigns of his destiny. He barked orders and demanded action. He made decisions that ultimately cost him the presidency.
Trump, however, increasingly resembles the man for whom the business was never more than a matter of rolling circumstance channelled by guile and luck. It is a narrative increasingly characterised by his own paranoid fears. The longer that Mueller stays silent, the deeper those fears seem to become. The leaks out of the White House tell one story but the most revealing leaks are those coming from the President himself. “I hereby declare” isn’t the cry of a leader in control of his destiny. It is the sound made by a leader who fears that power is slipping away and only has the formal robes of office to prove who he is.