On Wednesday, the hundred and forty-fifth day of his Presidency, Donald Trump did something out of character: he acted Presidential. A few hours after James Hodgkinson, a sixty-six-year-old building inspector from Illinois, shot up an early-morning practice of the Republican congressional baseball team, Trump issued a statement at the White House. He provided an update on what had occurred, praised the two Capitol Police officers who were shot while exchanging fire with Hodgkinson, and said that he and the First Lady were praying for the victims.
“We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s Capitol is here because, above all, they love our country,” Trump said. “We could all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace, and that we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.”
Almost as notable as Trump’s statement was the period of dignified silence that followed it. While some conservative media figures, such as Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, immediately sought to blame the shooting on anti-Trump liberals, Trump himself stayed above the fray. His Twitter account was quiet for most of the day, until, at 9:41 P.M., he reported that he had just left the hospital after visiting one of the shooting victims, Representative Steve Scalise.
For once, Trump had followed protocol and done what a President is supposed to do in a crisis: act as a unifier. Even some of his harshest critics gave him credit. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote, “I was impressed with President Trump’s well-crafted remarks.” Stephen Colbert, the host of “The Late Show,” said, “I want to say thank you to the congressional leadership, and to the President, for responding to this attack of terror in a way that gives us hope that whatever our differences, we will always be the United States of America.”
The Trump transformation lasted twenty-four hours. Shortly before 7 A.M.on Thursday morning, he was back to his old ways on Twitter. Responding to news reports that Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, is now investigating him for possible obstruction of justice, Trump wrote, “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice.” About an hour later, he posted another message: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA”
Trump’s fury didn’t diminish as the day went on. “Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?” he wrote in a mid-afternoon tweet. In a follow-up message, he added, “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?”
These outbursts can be read in at least two ways. The “rational actor” explanation is that Trump and his allies are engaged in a deliberate campaign to destroy the credibility of Mueller, a Republican and a former director of the F.B.I., by depicting him as a friend of James Comey and the Democrats. Newt Gingrich, a key Trump surrogate, has been taking this line in recent days, and Trump’s mention of “very bad and conflicted people” seemed to be a reference to Mueller.
The attacks on Mueller could be preparing the ground for Trump to fire him. But the White House is well aware that such an incendiary move would create a constitutional crisis that would probably end with Congress insisting on the appointment of another independent prosecutor. (That’s what happened in 1973, after Richard Nixon forced the Justice Department to fire Archibald Cox. Within two weeks, Leon Jaworski replaced Cox.) The Administration, therefore, might be playing a longer game. Few people in Washington think that Mueller will end up bringing charges against the President. The conventional wisdom is that, if he concludes that an obstruction case is justified, he will hand the matter over to Congress, which would then have to decide whether to impeach the President.
If that happens, the survival of Trump’s White House would depend on its ability to keep Capitol Hill Republicans in line. And one way to accomplish this is to exert pressure on them via Trump’s base. In an interview with Bloomberg View, Bob Inglis, a former G.O.P. congressman from South Carolina, explained that, even with the President’s approval rating in the thirties, his diehard supporters “can kill you in a Republican primary, which is why elected Republicans are terrified of those voters.” Trump must know that he is unlikely to convince most of the country that Mueller has an axe to grind. But it may still make sense for him to rile up viewers of Fox News, readers of Breitbart, and his own Twitter followers.
Yet there is a second way to read these attacks on Mueller. It is possible that Trump, having seen his decision to fire Comey boomerang on him in spectacular fashion, is simply ranting and raving.
The reports about Mueller’s investigation shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him. The existence of Comey’s memos, in which he recorded what the President said to him about dropping the investigation of Mike Flynn, has been known for a month now. And, in his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, Comey said straight out that Mueller would have to reach a judgment on whether an offense had been committed.
Officially, the White House stance is that it won’t have much more to say on the matter until the President is exonerated, and that questions should be directed to Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz. But Trump clearly can’t stop himself. He reportedly watches hours of news coverage about the Russia investigation every day, and vents about it to anybody who will listen. “Aides have tried to change the subject, with little luck,” Politico’s Josh Dawsey reported on Thursday. “Advisers have tried to buck up the president by telling him to be patient, agreeing that it is a ‘witch hunt’ and urging him to just let it play out—and reassuring him, ‘Eventually, you will be cleared,’ in the words of one. But none of that has changed Trump’s response.”
It has become a cliché in Washington to say that Trump is his own worst enemy—but it’s true. By leaning on Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and firing him when he didn’t, Trump transformed an F.B.I. probe that was still focussing on his campaign aides and associates into a special-counsel investigation in which he is now a principal target. And, although almost all the Republicans on Capitol Hill are still supporting him, the trends are in the wrong direction. Earlier this week, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, issued what was effectively a public warning to Trump not to fire Mueller. On Thursday, the Senate approved a bill that would impose additional sanctions on Russia and make it difficult for the Administration to lift them. Meanwhile, a new poll from the Associated Press showed that Trump’s approval rating has dropped to thirty-five per cent, while his disapproval rating has risen to sixty-four per cent.
A different President might look at these figures and decide to change course. But, of course, we are not dealing with a different President. This President apparently learned no lessons from the way his measured response to the shooting at the congressional baseball practice was received. On Friday morning, Trump launched yet another fusillade of tweets, in which he mocked the Russia investigation, lambasted the “Fake News Media,” and turned against Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, who told Congress earlier this week that he supported Mueller’s investigation and wouldn’t fire him without proper cause. “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” Trump wrote. “Witch Hunt.”
In response to this fusillade, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement, saying that Trump was sending a message “that he believes the rule of law doesn’t apply to him and that anyone who thinks otherwise will be fired…. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.” But is Trump, in this mood, capable of learning anything?’