The way this usually works, I thought, was Steve Bannon urging #WAR on Trump’s enemies while the milquetoast centrist Kushner pushes for appeasement and accommodation. Nothing is as it seems.
There are three ways to read the story. One: Kushner’s more of a Trumpian in his disposition than all of us have been led to believe. Two: Kushner’s nervous about having a special counsel sniffing around Team Trump’s Russia ties for reasons of his own. Three: It’s all a lie concocted by Kushner’s nationalist enemies inside the White House to make him look bad. Although … it doesn’t make him look bad to their own nationalist base. It improves his image by painting him as willing to fight even when the populist hellion Bannon is advising caution. How does a leak like this hurt Kushner among the right-wingers who have spent months calling on Trump to dump him?
Mr. Trump, who was looking through papers, reacted calmly but defiantly at first, according to two people familiar with the events, saying he wanted to “fight back.” Realizing the seriousness of the situation, he quickly summoned his staff, including Sean Spicer, the press secretary; Michael Dubke, the communications director; Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Reince Priebus, the chief of staff; Hope Hicks, a longtime aide; Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser; and Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist.
Most of those gathered recommended that the president adopt a conciliatory stance and release a statement accepting Mr. Rosenstein’s decision and embracing a swift investigation that would clear the cloud of suspicion hovering over the West Wing.
Mr. Kushner — who had urged Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey — was one of the few dissenting voices, urging the president to counterattack, according to two senior administration officials. After a brief discussion, however, calmer heads prevailed, and Mr. Trump’s staff huddled over a computer just outside the Oval Office to draft the statement that was ultimately released, asserting the president’s innocence and determination to move on.
It’s not clear what a “counterattack” have looked like. Presumably an angrily worded statement about how Bob Mueller is now in charge of “FAKE NEWS!” Which we sort of got this morning, come to think of it. So Jared wins again, I guess.
More seriously, wanting to “counterattack” is a self-defeating reaction to news that has upsides for Trump. He’s spent months proclaiming his innocence. Mueller’s appointment should have been framed that way, as an opportunity for Trump to finally have his name cleared by a highly respected public servant whom both sides trust, unlike that shady Jim Comey. And it was framed that way, until Trump blew up the message today on Twitter. Mueller’s appointment is also likely to get the House and Senate Intel Committees to slow down their own probes, especially as potential witnesses start to lawyer up in anticipation of being subpoenaed by Mueller. Comey might have been preparing to testify imminently before Congress about what Trump said to him about Flynn and Russia. Now, who knows if he ever will? Mueller’s probe may linger, even for years, but it’s likely to do so quietly, with few leaks, which means Russia news might finally start to drift off the front page.
And since, as many have noted, it’ll be difficult to prove that criminal acts were committed by Trump or his campaign staffers even if there’s evidence of collusion, Mueller may have no choice but to “clear” Team Trump by declining to pursue charges whether or not he suspects there were collusive interactions with Moscow. David Frum, an ardent Trump critic, made the case against a special counsel recently for precisely that reason. Mueller doesn’t get to air his political suspicions, only what he can get a grand jury to indict people for. The DOJ just raised the bar for Russiagate accusations against the White House whether it meant to or not.
There are also downsides for Trump to a special counsel, of course, as well for his staff. They’re going to have to lawyer up too now, which is expensive. Many of them are multi-millionaires, but not all. Will the boss be picking up the legal tabs for the poorer ones or is it time for them to start writing tell-alls? He was asked about the special counsel today by CNBC. Verdict: Not terrific.
“I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country. And we have very important things to be doing right now, whether it’s trade deals, whether it’s military, whether it’s stopping nuclear — all of the things that we discussed today. And I think this shows a very divided country,” Trump said. “It also happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the Electoral College being slanted so much in their way. That’s all this is. I think it shows division, and it shows that we’re not together as a country. And I think it’s a very, very negative thing. And hopefully, this can go quickly, because we have to show unity if we’re going to do great things with respect to the rest of the world.”
We are, in fact, a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country, and if this is a Democratic plot at the FBI to sully Trump’s election win, Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein seem oddly powerless to stop it. I wonder how long Trump will put up with the Mueller investigation before he gets fidgety and tries to solve his problem Comey-style. He can’t fire Mueller, but he could go the Nixon route and demand that Rosenstein fire Mueller on pain of losing his job if he refuses. He could also preemptively pardon anyone implicated in the Russiagate probe — Flynn, Manafort, Carter Page, whomever. Increasingly I think that’s what he’s going to do. He can’t try to get Mueller sacked or the country will go nuts about obstruction of justice and another “Saturday night massacre” but the president’s pardon power is so absolute that there’s really no doubt Trump could legally give all of his buddies “get out of jail” free cards. Critics would scream but he’d spin it just the way he did above: The probe is hurting the country, I’m satisfied there’s nothing to it, it’s time to move on and the voters can judge me for it in 2020. If he was willing to lean on Comey to lay off Flynn — big if — and was willing to fire him and then admit that the Russia investigation played a role in his thinking, he’s probably willing to get crazy with the cheez whiz on pardons. It’s a matter of time.
Update: Not surprising given the report yesterday that Flynn and Manafort are “subjects” of the investigation, but noteworthy.
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) May 18, 2017