There are two ways to interpret the reports that President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June and backed down only after his White House counsel threatened to resign.
The first is with guarded optimism: The episode shows that, although Trump is mercurial and blustery, his worst instincts can be contained, and that his ordinarily enabling staff can sometimes summon courage to do so.
The second is with dreadful foreboding: that Trump feels so threatened by the Russia probe that he’s willing to take the most extreme steps to shut it down.
Right now, much as I hope to be proven wrong, my money is on dread. Not necessarily in the form of Mueller’s dismissal – that alone would not end the investigation – but in the form of the more constitutionally fireproof tactic of mass pardons, potentially including Trump himself.
The case for seeing the Mueller non-firing as a bullet successfully dodged is that Trump, to employ one of the president’s pet putdowns, is all talk, no action. We’ve all known people like this. They are paper tigers, ultimately impotent no matter how great their seeming power. They rage but retreat once their storm of fury has blown over. Everyone around them knows not to be too hasty in carrying out orders shouted in anger.
Further, this case would go, even Trump has learned that there are limits to how badly he can behave and consequences for violating them, much like a dog with a shock collar discovering the existence of an invisible fence.
By definition, the obstruction prong of Mueller’s inquiry rests on a series of self-inflicted wounds involving Trump’s meddling in the Justice Department. Of those, the greatest blunder was the move to fire FBI Director James Comey. Is Trump really ready to jump back on that hot stove? If he did not understand back in June why firing Mueller would be such a mistake, surely he gets it now.
So maybe we should all calm down. Except, this is Trump. Nothing in his response to the Russia investigation has been rational, which augurs continued irrationality. Or, perhaps, desperate self-preservation.
One potential way to understand Trump is that he always tries to get away with what he thinks he can get away with. Within that framework, Trump’s itch to fire Mueller, and his eventual capitulation to cooler heads, has to be understood in the context of when it happened, last June.
Back then, the risk of a congressional revolt, even among Republicans, seemed real. Is it still? I have tried to carve out a space for realistic optimism about Republicans’ willingness to stand up to Trump’s worst excesses, but that cheery confidence is being put to the test by the unrelenting assault on the independence of the Justice Department and FBI.
Trump, emboldened by his Fox News feedback loop, could easily look at this shameful congressional behavior and interpret it as providing the permission structure for extreme action. As with calculating whether to launch a nuclear strike, that assessment could turn out to be a misinterpretation with catastrophic consequences.
Maybe Trump’s legal team, which wasn’t fully in place in June, will provide a calming influence. Maybe, but these folks have Trump for a client. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by Trump’s professions of willingness to cooperate with Mueller. Remember, we were going to see his tax returns, too.
So Trump’s June restraint could easily become, well, March madness. The Constitution grants him a power to pardon that he has already demonstrated a disturbing propensity to misuse. What is there in Trump’s character and behavior to suggest he would not be willing to do so again, as Mueller closes in?