The New York Times published a 4,536-word opus on President Donald Trump’s two-year-long (and running!) attempt to thwart the multiple investigations into his 2016 presidential campaign and its ties to Russia.
The entire thing is worth reading. It’s chock-a-block with news — like that Trump reportedly asked acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to install an ally to oversee the Southern District of New York investigation into Michael Cohen!! — and insights into the world (and White House) of Donald Trump.
But amid all those words, one sentence in the piece stood out to me as deeply important when it comes to thinking about Trump, the investigation and what special counsel Robert Mueller knows.
“The episode was among the first of multiple ham-handed efforts by the president to carry out a dual strategy: publicly casting the Russia story as an overblown hoax and privately trying to contain the investigation’s reach.”
The “episode” specifically referred to in the quote is Trump, in the midst of a meeting on how to handle the departure of national security adviser Michael Flynn, latching onto a rumor that then-Speaker Paul Ryan had said that the President had fired Flynn. No one in the meeting knew the real story and, as the Times piece makes clear, Trump didn’t shed any light on it or really seem to care what the truth was. He quickly convinced himself that the idea of him firing Flynn would put any concerns about undue Russian influence on his 2016 campaign behind him. So he instructed then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to go sell that line to the press.
(We previously knew that Trump was convinced that firing Flynn — or telling people that he fired Flynn — would end questions about Russia, because he told former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that very thing at lunch the day after Flynn left. And then Christie wrote about that conversation in a recently published book.)
The reason that sentence above is so important is because it reveals the conundrum at the center of Trump’s ongoing response to the various investigations into his campaign and White House: Why, if he is totally innocent — as he has declared many, many times — is he working so damn hard over such a long time to influence, obfuscate and seemingly obstruct federal investigations?
Why try to pressure Whitaker into putting a Trump ally in charge of the Southern District of New York investigation into hush money payments made by Cohen to two women alleging affairs with the President in the mid-2000s, as the Times report says Trump did?
Why have one of your lawyers reach out to Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in the summer of 2017 “to discuss possible pardons,” as the Times reports?
Why lean on administration officials — including deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — to turn over sensitive materials regarding the origins of Mueller’s Russian interference probe to Trump’s conservative allies in Congress, as the Times reports Trump did?
And on and on it goes. Trump’s actions are not seemingly those of someone who is fully convinced of his innocence or unworried about what these investigations might find.
Think about it in your own life. How often have you fixated on something — for two years! — that you neither cared nor were concerned about? It’s the whole the-opposite-of-love-isn’t-hate-it’s-indifference thing. Indifference is a sure sign that you truly are without fear, worry or hope in something. Whatever happens happens and all that. How Trump has acted over these past two years is the opposite of indifference.
The metaphor that has always made sense to me is Trump as a duck: On the surface of the water, he is doing everything he can to look as though he is gliding along smoothly, without a care in the world. Below the surface, he is paddling wildly.
Now, simply because Trump is paddling like mad under the surface while trying to look like he is effortlessly gliding on the surface doesn’t make him guilty. Acting guilty — or guilty-ish — isn’t proof of anything.
But with that single sentence, the Times reporters crystallized the circle I can’t square in my own thinking about Trump and these investigations: Why work so hard to stop them if you truly aren’t worried about what they’ll find?