By Frank Bowman
In the last week, several items surfaced in relation to the Mueller investigation that set the media atwitter, in both the traditional and social media senses.
First, as my invaluable RA and blog co-author Sam Crosby noted, the New York Times reports that last June Mr. Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, but backed down after White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign if he followed through with the order. Since the story broke, commentators have tended to fall into three camps. Mr. Trump himself called the report “fake news.” (Notably, neither Mr. McGahn nor anyone else from the White House has so far denied its veracity.) Those who accept the report as true but are disposed to defend Mr. Trump have argued that he was just blowing off steam, which is no offense. Those who view Mr. Trump less favorably have suggested either that this event is evidence of Mr. Trump’s state of mind in relation to obstruction of justice (i.e., it tends to prove that actions like firing James Comey were undertaken for the purpose of obstructing the Russia investigation), or that the rescinded order was itself an attempt to obstruct justice.
On this one, I’m more sympathetic than usual to the pro-Trump camp. Standing alone, Trump’s reported order is of no consequence. NEWS FLASH: President decides to do something politically stupid and possibly illegal, but is talked out of it! That’s not a crime. It’s not an impeachable offense. At most it demonstrates, as if more demonstration were needed, the extraordinary variability of our wayward chief executive’s brain.
As for the multiple commentators straining to make Mr. Trump’s almost-firing of Mueller part of the mosaic of evidence in a case of obstruction of justice, well, yeah, I guess it adds a teensy bit to the argument that Mr. Trump had a corrupt purpose in firing Mr. Comey. But, let’s face it, not much. Bob Mueller’s job, after all, is to be a highly public thorn in the president’s side. The temptation to sack him would be intense, even for a president who was both entirely innocent and far more temperate than Mr. Trump. Nearly yielding to that temptation, but pulling up short of actually doing it, just doesn’t prove much.
The week’s other big Trump-Mueller story was Mr. Trump’s apparently off-the-cuff declarations that he’d be happy to talk on the record, under oath, to Mueller’s investigators. This was treated as earth-shaking news, perhaps signaling confidence by White House counsel and Mr. Trump’s private lawyers that the Mueller investigation would be winding up soon with nothing untoward to report about Mr. Trump. This interpretation survived for a few hours — roughly the period it took for Mr. Trump’s lawyers to pick themselves up off the floor, swear colorfully at their client’s incorrigible refusal to listen to their advice, knock back a neat whiskey or two, and then get on the phones to start walking the story back.
Personally, I put Mr. Trump’s assertion that he looks forward to talking with the Mueller team, under oath or otherwise, in the same bin with his statements during the campaign that he would release his tax returns once they were no longer under audit. Mr. Trump’s whole life is a saga of promises blithely made and even more blithely broken. His egotism may persuade him that he could dance nimbly through the minefield of an encounter with really good prosecutors. But my bet is that his lawyers will dissuade him from a voluntary interview by Mr. Mueller, and that they will resist any effort to compel an appearance before a grand jury.
In short, nothing much of consequence happened this week on the Mueller front. Stay tuned.