Bad idea. If the Russiagate probe is much ado about nothing with all the major players destined to be exonerated, why go out of your way right off the bat to signal antagonism towards the guy who’s now leading it? The more defensive the White House is, the more culpable it looks.

But that’s part of a pattern. Allegedly leaning on Comey to go easy on Mike Flynn, firing him and then acknowledging that the Russia investigation was part of the reason, then supposedly telling the Russians themselves that ousting Comey helped take some of the Russiagate “pressure” off — Trump has done everything he can to make it look like he’s worried about what investigators might discover, even if he really isn’t. It’s horrendous political self-sabotage.

Within hours of Mueller’s appointment on Wednesday, the White House began reviewing the Code of Federal Regulations, which restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating their prior law firm’s clients for one year after their hiring, the sources said…

Mueller’s former law firm, WilmerHale, represents Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who met with a Russian bank executive in December, and the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is a subject of a federal investigation…

If the [DOJ] did not grant [Mueller] a waiver, Mueller would be barred from investigating Kushner or Manafort, and this could greatly diminish the scope of the probe, experts said…

Even if the Justice Department granted a waiver, the White House would consider using the ethics rule to create doubt about Mueller’s ability to do his job fairly, the sources said. Administration legal advisers have been asked to determine if there is a basis for this.

The fear, I guess, is that because WilmerHale possesses confidential information on its clients, Kushner and Manafort, and Mueller had access to that information until recently (even though he didn’t work with either of them personally), he could use what he might know to aid his case against them. Rod Rosenstein must have already considered that risk, though, and deemed it small enough, given Mueller’s reputation for integrity, to appoint Mueller as special counsel anyway. It’s a fait accompli that he’ll grant Mueller a waiver. Which means, if the White House starts challenging Mueller’s impartiality, they’ll effectively be challenging Rosenstein’s impartiality too. Is Rosenstein going to stand for that? According to the Journal, he warned the White House earlier this month that “he couldn’t work in an environment where facts weren’t accurately reported.” If they start attacking his credibility, he might resign. And then Trump’s Russiagate political problem will, somehow, get even worse.

Here’s the real question. When is Trump going to stop screwing around with undermining his own Justice Department and start issuing pardons? We all know it’s a matter of time. I’m surprised, frankly, that Mike Flynn hasn’t received one already:

Two days after firing Michael Flynn as his national security adviser in February, President Donald Trump told several aides and friends he should have kept him instead

“A lot of people in the White House don’t want anything to do with Flynn,” one White House official said. ”But Trump loves him. He thinks everyone is out to get him.”…

Trump is protective of Flynn out of a sense of loyalty, according to a Flynn associate, who said the president doesn’t apply political calculations to his close personal relationships. Trump often judges people on his personal bond to them and how they can help him, and he saw both in Flynn.

You don’t need to believe that Trump is guilty of colluding with Russia to believe that he’s desperate to short-circuit the Russia probe. He may be innocent but so exasperated by the rumor-mongering and endless breaking news about new developments in the investigation that he expects it’ll eat his presidency alive if he doesn’t do something to end it. Firing Comey was one ham-fisted attempt to do that. Using an obscure federal reg to try to hamstring Mueller is another. The more he undercuts government cops and lawyers, the more he risks an obstruction charge, which would mean impeachment. Why not play his trump card (no pun intended) and start dealing out pardons instead?

He doesn’t need to wait until someone’s been indicted to issue a pardon, as Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford could tell you. And he wouldn’t need to worry (much) about legal scrutiny of his decision, as he does with all of his other Russiagate countermoves over the past few months. The president’s power to pardon is plenary. It would look unbelievably shady for Trump to use one of his kingliest prerogatives as head of the executive branch to give all of his cronies “get out of jail free” cards, especially while an investigation’s ongoing and the facts haven’t yet come to light, but there’s really no question that it would be legal. Trump would be accused of an abuse of power in using pardons to shut down the probe — a lawful form of obstruction of justice, essentially, for the president’s exclusive enjoyment — but if he cared about public perceptions, he wouldn’t have fired Comey. He’d probably calculate that a few weeks of bad press for pardoning Flynn, Kushner, et al. is worth it in order to be done with Russiagate once and for all. Voters will forget about it in time. And his base, as always, will back him to the hilt. It’s coming. The only question is when.

Exit question: Let’s say Trump did pardon Flynn and Kushner and everyone else, rendering Mueller’s investigation moot. Would Rosenstein permit Mueller continue the probe anyway (probably at great expense) in the interest of finding out what, if any, wrongdoing occurred vis-a-vis Russia? No one could be charged because of the pardons but Mueller could still prepare a report that would do great political damage to Trump if it showed probable cause to believe that anyone he’d pardoned had been guilty.