One of the many miracles of Donald Trump is that it’s never entirely clear whether he’s the living embodiment of the phrase “crazy like a fox”, or whether he’s just plain old crazy.
Those two things (feigning insanity for strategic purposes and actually being insane) often produce similar results for a simple reason. If other people can’t discern whether you’re “crazy like a fox” or need to be committed, they’ll assume the latter because the consequences of assuming the former and being wrong can be catastrophic.
Trump gets away with a lot of things based on that confusion. For instance, it’s possible that the president obstructed the Mueller probe in full view of the public because he knew that would muddy the waters. Can it properly be called a “conspiracy” if you do it in front of 50 million Twitter followers? Does firing an FBI director in order to stymie a probe into possible collusion count as obstruction if you tell Lester Holt that’s what you did in a prime time, nationally-televised interview?
If that was a strategy designed to inoculate himself against obstruction allegations, well then it’s still obstruction. But how can you know? It seems at least as likely that Trump is just a moron, in which case it’s virtually impossible to prove criminal intent. For example, calling your attorney general “Mr. Magoo” as part of a pervasive effort to intimidate the Justice Department is evidence of obstruction. But it’s also something Trump would do anyway because he’s a mean-spirited idiot with the mentality of a fourth-grader. Complicating things further is the fact that Trump went on Twitter and denied calling Sessions “Magoo”, which is paradoxically proof that he probably did, and also proof that he realized the optics were bad in the context of Sessions’s recusal, but it’s also so comically ridiculous that it renders the whole discussion null and void.
The obstruction question is impossible to answer not because of the ambiguity around whether a sitting president can be indicted, but rather because nobody knows, for sure, whether Trump is more conniving grifter (as Michael Cohen claims) or more senile D-lister who spells the word “hamburgers” with zero “u”s, two “e”s, and a “d” where the “g” should be.
Robert Mueller has spent the better part of two years trying to sort that out. Despite his best efforts, the legendary lawman and war hero came up largely empty. He could not say, definitively, whether or not Trump committed a crime. That puts Mueller in the same boat with the likes of John Kelly who, despite being a battle-hardened general who has seen things no human should see, and probably killed more men than he can even remember, was so utterly flummoxed by President “Hamberders”, that he quit out of frustration, perhaps with Trump but also perhaps with himself, for not being able to solve the orange Rubik’s Cube that occupies the Oval Office.
This same frustrating dynamic now appears set to derail Mueller’s public testimony on Capitol Hill.
“Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has expressed reluctance to him testifying publicly in front of the House Judiciary Committee”, CNN reported Tuesday, citing sources familiar with the matter. “The special counsel’s team has expressed the notion that Mueller does not want to appear political after staying behind the scenes for two years and not speaking as he conducted his investigation into the president.”
Bloomberg subsequently ran a series of similar headlines, noting that Mueller has apparently told the panel he wants to avoid a political fight.
Jerry Nadler has variously insisted that Mueller will testify one way or another. “Eventually we will hear from Mueller because … we will subpoena him if we have to”, Jerry told CNN earlier this month, adding that he “certainly hopes” it doesn’t come to that.
The Justice Department maintains that it is Mueller’s decision whether to testify. One subject about which Democrats want to quiz the special counsel relates to William Barr’s characterization of a letter from Mueller in which the special counsel expressed more than a little consternation at “public confusion” stemming at least in part from the attorney general’s four-page summary of the report. Barr claims a subsequent phone call between the two men revolved primarily around media coverage, but the text of Mueller’s letter seems to tell a different story.
By all accounts, Mueller should fear nothing and no man. But once again, Trump seems to have pulled off a strategic masterstroke, if only by accident.
Trump has tweeted about Mueller 157 times (by my count) over the past two years. Many of those tweets explicitly or implicitly implicate the special counsel and his team in a deep state conspiracy orchestrated by “angry Dems”. Trump has, on too many occasions to count, parroted the same narrative in public and at rallies.
It is now unquestionably the case that most of Trump’s base (and a disconcerting number of Republicans more generally) believe that Mueller, a lifelong Republican, was the “witch hunt” ring leader hell-bent not on getting to the heart of an effort by a hostile foreign power to subvert America’s democratic process, but rather on subverting that process himself, by providing a pretext for Democrats to effectively nullify the 2016 election.
Trump’s hundreds of anti-Mueller tweets and public rants may well be evidence of obstruction themselves. Indeed, when viewed in the context of his well-documented efforts to have the special counsel fired, Trump’s tweets almost certainly constitute criminal activity.
But then again, those tweets could also be be viewed as “evidence” of senility, aggravated by paranoia and amplified by arrogance.
In fact, that’s almost the excuse Barr rolled out while spinning the Mueller report.
During the bizarre press conference convened hours before the release of the redacted report, Barr went out of his way to suggest the president’s behavior (the outbursts, bullying, tweets, etc.) were somehow excusable because Trump knew there was in fact “no collusion”. “Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered office and sought to perform his responsibilities, prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct… yet, as he said from the beginning, there was no collusion”, Barr said, echoing Trump’s go-to line and (basically) excusing Trump’s behavior by asking you to consider the source, the circumstances and how you’d expect the source to behave under those circumstances. It was a nice way of saying: “Look, Trump is crazy and everyone backed him into a corner, so what do you expect?”
Now, Robert Mueller is “balking” (to quote Bloomberg) at testifying before Congress because Trump’s wild antics have succeeded in painting a picture of the Republican special counsel as a nefarious operator and a conflicted, Democrat tool.
You could argue (and Nadler probably will) that Trump’s tweets and language have effectively silenced Mueller – that after hundreds of tweets, the president has muzzled the most important witness of them all.
But how do you prove that? You can’t. Because Trump’s defenders will always just point to all of the other things he’s said on Twitter as evidence that the president is nuts. Something like this: “To be fair, he also threatened to nuke North Korea. And called Bob Corker a ‘dog catcher’. And then there was ‘hamberders’ – who can forget ‘hamberders’?”
So, “crazy like a fox”? Or just crazy?
In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter.