The Times and the Post tonight both have stories out reporting the Trump legal team’s expanding war against Special Counsel Robert Mueller and – hyperbolic as it may sound to say – the law itself. While there are a number of individual dimensions to the stories, the larger story, especially from the Post, is that the President refuses to allow the law to apply to himself or his family.
There’s a lot here. So it’s best to cover the items seriatim.
1. The President’s legal team is conducting opposition research against Mueller and his team, with the specific aim of finding conflicts of interest and the general aim of discrediting his investigation and laying the groundwork for his dismissal. The proposed conflicts do not suggest the Trump team has found much to work with. WaPo: “Another potential conflict claim is an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011, two White House advisers said. A spokesman for Mueller said there was no dispute when Mueller, who was FBI director at the time, left the club.” This is not a serious legal point. It’s the kind of stuff you take to your payola reporter at The New York Post.
2. Marc Corallo, a respected, albeit partisan Republican lawyer, had served as the spokesman for Trump’s legal defense team. He has had a professional relationship with Mueller and had made clear he would not be party to attacks on Mueller’s character or integrity. He has now resigned, apparently as a result of the new attacks on Mueller.
3. Relatedly, the President and his legal team are attempting to prescribe a narrow ambit for Mueller’s probe. Basically anything outside the four walls of the 2016 election is off limits, according to Trump, including his family’s business operations, perhaps even during the 2016 election. This isn’t remotely how these kinds of investigations work. In this specific case, Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller a broad mandate to go where the facts lead him. This is not an argument that would convince any lawyer or judge. It is a political argument which lays the groundwork for Mueller’s dismissal.
4. The President is asking his lawyers about his power to pardon aides, members of his family and even himself.
5. President Trump’s longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz appears to be being phased out of his role as the President’s lawyer. Now leading the team is John Dowd, a more experienced DC defense lawyer. Jay Sekulow, a Trump loyalist, will be his second.
As I said above, there are lots of details. But each has the same effect. President Trump will define the scope of Mueller’s investigation. Mueller will continue his investigation only as long as President Trump wants: Trump and his spokespeople have now repeatedly said that the President reserves the right to fire Mueller. The President is also prepared to pardon some or all of the people under investigation. Again, many details, one upshot: Mueller can only do what the President allows. That amounts to saying that the President will not allow the law to operate with respect to him or his family.
From a different perspective, we are beginning to see what everyone who’s studied Trump’s business history knows: to paraphrase the Army maxim, Trump’s business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. So he made clear in yesterday’s Times interview that any review of his or his family’s business history would be unacceptable.
This paragraph from the Post is particularly striking:
Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.
It is quite remarkable that in a wide-ranging investigation into his campaign and himself Trump could have any expectation that his tax returns would remain off limits to Mueller. These are after all government documents. Highly confidential, to be sure, subject to many restrictions. But they’re not like a military service psych profile or years of private medical records. It’s an amazing admission. Frankly, I’ve always assumed the really bad stuff wouldn’t actually be in the tax returns. I figure that stuff is either off the books or hidden in mazes of shell companies. Obviously a forensic accountant would use the returns not to pull the Russia collusion declaration (he filed out a RUS1917!) but rather as a starting place to begin sleuthing out the details that remain opaque in the forms themselves. However that may be, wow, he’s really worried about having anyone look at those tax returns, isn’t he!??!?
What it all comes down to is this. As I’ve written before, President Trump has been in crooked business for decades: money laundering, mob partnerships, various straight-up swindles. Statutes of limitations will have run out on most of those infractions but not all of them. This has always been obvious to me and everyone else who’s looked closely at Trump’s record. What recent weeks has made clear to me is that there’s almost certainly lots of dirty laundry tied to money deals and connivances with the Russia government.
Trump is in many ways his own worst accuser. Anyone who’s been in business for decades would not welcome a searching legal scrutiny of years of business. Most people, certainly in Trump’s line of work, aren’t totally clean. And a determined prosecutor can often find technical infractions that in the normal course of things would never be an issue. So no one would like this. But Trump is willing to run the most unimaginable political and even criminal risks to block even the beginnings of a serious probe into his business history and the 2016 election. We are far, far past the point where there is any credible reason to doubt that President Trump is hiding major and broad-ranging wrongdoing. No mix of ego, inexperience, embarrassment or anything else can explain his behavior. It just can’t. He’s hiding bad acts. And the country is likely heading toward a major constitutional and political crisis because Trump is signaling that he will not allow the normal course of the law to apply to him – a challenge which puts the entire edifice of democratic government under threat.