Donald Trump, to paraphrase Jeb Bush, is a chaos client. After his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn,pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I., the president contained himself for an entire 26 hours, probably thanks to the strenuous begging of his team of lawyers—before tweeting a sentence potentially implicating himself in obstruction of justice. The next day, one of those long-suffering lawyers, John Dowd, tried to undo the damage by claiming he, not Trump, had sloppily drafted the tweet and that Trump wasn’t admitting to any wrongdoing.
“John Dowd is not an idiot,” says Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the team in the Scooter Libby leak case. “Why would he feel compelled to draft a tweet, which he’s never done before, commenting on Flynn’s plea agreement? On a Saturday morning? No, I don’t believe Dowd drafted it. And I can’t discern any general legal strategy that the president is following.”
Perhaps that’s because several strategies are in play, often at the same time. Ty Cobb, Trump’s lead attorney, keeps advocating calm cooperation with Robert Mueller’s investigation. Don McGahn, the White House counsel, has argued for cutting Trump’s losses. And Dowd, in a new and fairly desperate gambit, has taken to claiming that Trump is above the law—that a president, by definition, cannot obstruct justice.
Trump plays along for a while with each of them before undercutting his team in an instant. Yet a coherent legal approach may not matter as much as a public relations strategy—something Trump seems to understand intuitively.
“Donald always listened to me when I told him not to talk to the papers,” says Jay Goldberg, who represented Trump during his two spectacular divorces, from Ivana Trump and then from Marla Maples. “But what’s happening now with the tweets is different. The press is so against Donald that he needs to get his side of the story out.”
That’s why Trump’s subsequent tweets attacking the F.B.I. are more alarming and important. They are key elements in Trump’s campaign to undermine Mueller’s credibility and muddy the waters—and to prepare the political ground for the presidential pardons on the horizon.
That’s why Trump and his allies yell “no collusion!” when Mueller springs another indictment or plea deal, because collusion is not a statutory concept. It’s why they keep claiming that Hillary Clinton is the real felon. And it’s why Jay Sekulow, who is officially one of Trump’s lawyers but functions more as one of his hype men, pushes “deep state” conspiracy theories on his syndicated radio show.
Trump’s effort got a large gift when Mueller revealed that several months ago he had canned a lead investigator, Peter Strzok, for allegedly sending anti-Trump texts during last year’s campaign. “Now it all starts to make sense!” Trump tweeted as part of a blistering series of messages that slagged the F.B.I.’s reputation as being in “tatters.” It was just the kind of aggressive approach that Roger Stone has been urging Trump to take for months. “We talk from time to time,” Stone says. “Not every day. He knows my view. The president is being very ill-served by his attorneys. He’s on the defensive. Cobb has consistently argued to waive executive privilege, give Mueller anything he wants, and rely on the honesty, integrity, and fairness of Robert Mueller. That’s a losing strategy. I would adhere to Stone’s rule, which I stole from Winston Churchill, and which Donald Trump has stolen from both of us: attack, attack, attack. And when you think you are too tired, attack again.”
That tone still plays well with Trump’s base, and it’s why the theory that once tax cuts are passed, nervous congressional Republicans will abandon Trump to preserve their seats in the 2018 midterms remains Democratic wishful thinking. “Standing here today, looking out over Nashville, Tennessee, there’s no difference, really, in the political climate than there was the day Trump got elected,” G.O.P. consultant Tom Ingram says. Ingram is no Trump fan: he is an adviser to Senator Bob Corker, a fierce Trump antagonist. “There’s still a great distrust of status quo politics, an intense distrust of the media, and a willingness to overlook behavior that 10 years ago would have been fatal in politics. And you’ve got a president who, in effect, is another network or another newspaper chain, in his own tweetworld.”
Trump’s blasts at Mueller and the Justice Department appeal to his loyal voters, but they have a crucial secondary audience: the congressional Republican majority that would initiate any impeachment proceedings. Reminding vulnerable Republicans of the base’s loyalty to Trump could help keep them in line if the president starts pardoning his cronies and firing his tormenters. “Jeff Sessions needs to appoint a special counsel on the question of Uranium One,” Stone says. “That special counsel’s first job would be to inform Mueller, [James] Comey, and [F.B.I. Director Andrew] McCabe, and [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein that they are under federal investigation, and they must step down. If Sessions doesn’t do that, then Trump should fire Sessions and get himself an attorney general who will.”
At the moment, though, Trump has been focused on blurting out his pity for Flynn, the “good guy” whose life has been “destroyed” by the F.B.I. and the Russia investigations. “Pardoning Flynn is a very good idea,” Stone says. “Christmas sure would be a good time, wouldn’t it?”