Why you should care
Because this is going to happen again.
Buried in Appendix C, which begins on page 417 of 448 of the Mueller Report, are some extremely un-Trump-like words of Donald J. Trump. Carefully crafted and vetted by a series of attorneys, they’re dry (example: “I have no recollections of being told during the campaign that any foreign government or foreign leader had provided, wished to provide, or offered to provide tangible support to my campaign”) and stand in sharp contrast to his comments reported by others elsewhere in the document (example: “I’m f—ed!”).
Special Counsel Robert Mueller even offers a quasi-apology for the responses as a lead-in, noting that Trump says he cannot remember something more than 30 times in the replies, and going through why Mueller declined to subpoena the president for an in-person interview. Basically, Mueller decided that waiting through the long delay while Trump challenged the subpoena in court wouldn’t be worth it, and besides, he already had plenty of evidence to go on.
The conclusions, we now know: no evidence of campaign members coordinating with Russians to influence the election (though they clearly welcomed the help) and an unclear ruling on whether Trump obstructed justice (try as he might).
There is plenty that’s embarrassing and possibly criminal in those 448 pages, but the Department of Justice isn’t going to prosecute the president, and Congress is unlikely to impeach (and will certainly not remove) him. So Trump has, it seems, survived this scandal — and is rewriting the rules on how to do it.
Rule No. 1: Don’t Testify
The president has, shall we say, a loose relationship with the truth. Attorney Rudy Giuliani and others have said an interview with Mueller would be a “perjury trap,” implying that Trump was likely to lie about something — just as President Bill Clinton did about his escapades with Monica Lewinsky, leading to his impeachment. Trump was just cooperative enough with Mueller that the special counsel concluded he was getting what he needed, without fully cooperating and sitting down for an interview.
Rule No. 2: Act Out in Public
The Mueller report provides new details about Trump’s behind-the-scenes machinations to quash the investigations, notably an episode in which he directs former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to tell then–attorney general Jeff Sessions to sharply limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation, and Lewandowski never follows through. Or when Trump requested then–deputy national security adviser K. T. McFarland write a memo saying that Trump never told then–national security adviser Michael Flynn to talk about sanctions with the Russians during the transition … which McFarland declined to do, because she didn’t know that to be true.
But these revelations were peanuts compared to what the president has done in public. He belittled Sessions on Twitter, told NBC News he fired FBI Director James Comey because of the Russia probe and dangled a Paul Manafort pardon to the New York Post. During the campaign, Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Five hours later, Russians tried for the first time to hack Hillary Clinton’s personal email accounts. Trump — or rather his attorneys — told Mueller that the comment was made “in jest and sarcastically.”
The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself…I would have quickly picked someone else. So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined…and Sessions knew better than most that there was No Collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
Mueller points out that conducting possible obstruction of justice in public is “unusual” but doesn’t mean it’s not a crime. Yet in the public-perception game, it appears less sinister or at least dulls the senses about acceptable behavior.
Rule No. 3: Insubordination Can Be Good
If Trump’s lackeys had carried out all his requests — i.e., his repeated attempts to fire or limit Mueller — he’d be in far worse legal shape today. Instead, the Mueller Report had a lot of attempted obstruction.
Rule No. 4: Mind the Base
The way Trump has conducted his presidency in all things not Russia has helped him survive this scandal, because the Republican Party has had his back throughout. Despite positions he might have espoused in the past or even campaigned on, Trump catered strongly to social conservatives and small-government types throughout his time in office — and never made any big moves across the aisle that might alienate the party base. As a result, GOP voters have his back, and so do their elected leaders. Unshakable party support means that Trump’s removal from office (requiring 67 Senate votes) is basically impossible, and congressional Republicans have spent the past two-plus years saying the real scandal is the investigation of Trump in the first place.
Our scandal culture, surveillance state and nasty partisanship mean a future president is likely to face some version of this process — just as Clinton and Ronald Reagan did. Trump just wrote them The Art of the Ordeal.