WASHINGTON — President Trump is running a lucky streak. The question is whether he can take advantage of it.
Despite methodically documenting Trump’s efforts to curtail the investigation into Russian election interference, Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not charge him with illegally tampering with the inquiry, nor did he accuse the president or his associates of conspiracy. And though impeachment rumblings grow louder on the left, House Democrats seem unlikely to open such proceedings because they fear overreaching going into the 2020 election.
That’s an enormous reversal of fortune for Trump, who nearly two years ago had called the appointment of Mueller “the end of my presidency,” according to the special counsel’s report.
But as the 448-page report makes clear, the president has a penchant for getting himself — and those around him — in trouble. And there’s reason to believe he could yet squander this political gift by attempting to settle scores and fixating on other investigations, perhaps drowning out his positive economic message as he fights for reelection.
“The real danger for Trump is the other ongoing investigations — meaning there are many more revelations to be unspooled — and his own bad temper,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University. “He probably would have been better to act like Ronald Reagan, a Macy’s parade float just going all over the noise. Instead, he throws himself right into the muck.”
The Mueller report paints a detailed picture of Trump’s insecurities and paranoia as he heads into 2020 with yet more threats hanging over him: numerous inquiries by House Democrats. He’s also lost many of the aides who curbed his worst impulses and will likely face fresh attacks on the legitimacy of his election, given Mueller’s unequivocal finding that Russia interfered on his behalf in 2016.
And true to form, Trump continues to try to discredit the Mueller investigation, instead of simply declaring victory and moving on from the more unsavory facts it exposed. Over the past two days he issued a barrage of tweets, some profane, declaring “the Russia Hoax is dead” and again raising the prospect of investigating those who started the probe.
This may be because the report contains numerous details about Russian influence that he believes could undermine his electoral legitimacy — a perennial sore spot for Trump that Mueller documented extensively, and one Democrats will likely try to exploit in the coming months.
From the moment he was elected, Trump was reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any Russian effort to aid his campaign, worried it would diminish the public’s perception of his election. His longtime aide Hope Hicks told investigators Trump viewed it as his “Achilles’ heel,” because he thought it would detract from his remarkable victory. Other now-former aides, including Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, and Rick Gates, all told investigators Trump was preoccupied with whether his victory would be accepted as legitimate.
But the report unequivocally states Russia sought to boost Trump, offering detailed accounts of contacts between his campaign and Russian operatives and others involved in the dissemination of embarrassing Democratic party e-mails. And it suggested the campaign welcomed the documents, even if it was not involved in procuring them: Gates told investigators that, by the summer of 2016, the campaign was planning “a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of [Hillary] Clinton e-mails by WikiLeaks.”
Trump’s fear of Mueller would lead him closer to legal peril than the Russian interference itself. The special counsel documented multiple attempts by Trump to obstruct and derail his investigation, but did not produce any findings of conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents.
That dynamic — Russian interference, Trump obstruction — will likely rear its head again.
“I’m anxious to speak to the special counsel about the conclusions he rendered with regard to the conspiracy between the Trump campaign officials and the Russians,” said Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which has called Attorney General Bill Barr and Mueller to testify in the coming weeks.
Democrats may also try to amplify some of Mueller’s most damning findings by calling former Trump staffers to testify about the president’s persistent orders to interfere with the investigation.
Mueller’s report suggests the president is hyper-attuned to the power of televised hearings to dominate the news and shape narratives about his presidency — and that he won’t hesitate to try to influence or shame witnesses. And his penchant for trying to derail investigations into his conduct is already evident in how his administration is handling the new Democratic majority in the House
The administration has defied several deadlines for documents sought by House committees, likely setting up court battles that could significantly delay the Democrats’ oversight attempts. And many of Trump’s aides who told Mueller they refused the president’s most brazen requests to obstruct the special counsel’s investigation have left the administration, removing those guardrails on his conduct.
“Trump will do everything in his power to obstruct the congressional investigations,” predicted Allan Lichtman, an American University political historian who forecast Trump’s 2016 win. “He’s going to turn over nothing.”
Once again, Trump would be unlikely to face any legal consequences for stonewalling, as there are many ways to delay the requests from House Democrats without defying court orders.
But politically, the president could face peril if he won’t move on, betraying a tendency to nurse old wounds and settle scores. Democrats will continue to rehash the Mueller findings with high-profile hearings and testimony, creating political theater perhaps more threatening to the president than a subpoena. Meanwhile, Trump and his allies in Congress appear eager to pursue investigations into how the Russia probe was started in the first place, prolonging the drama.
“I think this whole ‘investigating the investigators’ is a political distraction for Trump,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant, who would urge the president to “move on” to economic issues. “I think his base is probably sick of this. They like seeing him vindicated, but they don’t want to talk about it for the next two years.”