Mere presidential venting, or “an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight,” as Adam Schiff accused in the aftermath? Donald Trump issued a demand to Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Twitter to shut down Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe, calling him “totally conflicted” and the investigation a “Rigged Witch Hunt.” At least this time, Trump took care to be specific when calling the whole thing a “TOTAL HOAX”:
The catalyst for this outburst appears to be the trial of Paul Manafort:
That seems odd, given the lack of any mention of Trump or Russia in its first day. It in fact made this Washington Post report a little out of date:
No one mentioned Donald Trump. Robert S. Mueller III, either. The word “Russia” was not uttered.
On the first day of the first trial to result from the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump did not tweet about any “rigged witch hunt.” He said nothing about “13 Angry Democrats,” his biting shorthand for the prosecutors who are examining any potential ties between his campaign and Russian operatives.
That makes today’s outburst doubly odd. The story from the Manafort trial has been how little Trump has been tied to it. Why go out of his way now to make this argument when the trial itself won’t open the Russia-collusion can of worms? If prosecutors were getting anything from the Manafort connection, Manafort himself would have cut a deal to avoid this trial (and the next one) to cooperate. If there was ever a time to leave this alone for public-relations sake, it’s during a trial where you’re already in the clear. It has more than a whiff of a thou doth protest too much vibe.
On top of that, this is an odd demand to make now. It appears that Robert Mueller is approaching the end of at least one phase of his investigation, either obstruction or “collusion,” which makes a shutdown now almost pointless. On top of that, this feeds into allegations that Trump is maneuvering to fire Mueller in private — a tough thing to deny while Trump is on Twitter telling Jeff Sessions to “stop” Mueller’s investigation.
The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat doesn’t appreciate the, ahem, transparency:
The President of the United States just called on his Attorney General to put an end to an investigation in which the President, his family and campaign may be implicated.
This is an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight. America must never accept it. https://t.co/F8b6a0IGOh
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) August 1, 2018
It’s not hiding anywhere. The fact that this is on Twitter makes it tough to take seriously anyway. It’s a political argument, not an order; Jeff Sessions has studiously ignored other Twitter “orders” of similar bent over the last year. Besides, Sessions has recused himself from anything relating to Mueller, so he couldn’t execute this as an order even if it was such. It would have to go to Rosenstein, and Rosenstein is less likely to view this seriously than Sessions. On top of all that, Trump actually does have the legal authority to order Mueller fired, which would make it tough for an obstruction charge to stick, outside an outright admission that he wanted to avoid legal consequences from the probe. (Of course, that’s precisely the kind of action that could easily result in an effort to impeach and remove Trump too. Congress has its own legal authority in these matters.)
Still, Trump’s outburst now near the end of the process raises the possibility that the White House is growing concerned about what Mueller will eventually report. They’re ramping up the rhetoric against Mueller and the entire investigation, and that has to be serving some kind of strategy, at least in Trump’s mind. Whether that has to do with his own risk or that of his family, this looks very much like someone worried that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.