President Trump on Wednesday got on his Twitter machine and suggested, in a rambling, seven-post tirade, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions "should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now." Two years ago, it might have been shocking to see the president ordering his top law enforcement official to stop the government's inquiry into him and his campaign's possible collusion with a hostile foreign power — basically obstructing justice in plain sight. But in this case, it was just another miserable morning in occupied D.C.
What exactly precipitated this latest monarchical meltdown is not clear. ABC News reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to interview Trump about obstruction of justice, so that could be it. The outburst also coincided with the second day of the trial of international man of griftery and former Trump campaign manager ("for a very short time"!) Paul Manafort. The outburst brought with it fresh fears that Trump will conduct some kind of Morning Massacre, firing Sessions, Mueller, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in one fell swoop. But even if he did that, it wouldn't matter. We will, one way or another, finally know what Mueller knows, and no amount of presidential theatrics can change that.
During his Wednesday morning tweetstorm, Trump managed to muster more sympathy for Manafort than he ever has for innocent parents forcibly separated from their children. Indeed, the president got very worked up — one might even call his behavior fussy — that his old pal Manafort has been held in solitary confinement because every time he is allowed contact with the outside world, he relentlessly tries to undermine the case against him. "Who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone … or Paul Manafort?" he asked.
Of course, for anyone who wasn't hopelessly compromised by Russian scratch (i.e. not Trump), 5 minutes with Manafort should have set off a red alert. There were so many warning signs: Why was this dude willing to work for free? Who sent him? As we say in Chicago, "We don't want nobody that nobody sent." What exactly had he been doing all those years for Ukrainian despot Viktor Yanukovych? Subsequent revelations that Manafort was likely ankle-bracelet deep in bank fraud and acting illegally as an unregistered foreign agent are the least surprising developments since we found out that Steve Bannon had trouble getting along with other staffers in the White House. Not knowing that Paul Manafort was crooked is like not being able to tell that your cab driver is smashed even though he smells like a vodka distillery and has 11 empty fifths scattered across the backseat.
And yet, then-candidate Trump hired this obviously compromised fraudster to manage his flailing campaign and then fired him a few months later after Russian agents had dutifully completed their invited hacking of Trump's Democratic opponent. What did Manafort bring to an American political campaign circa 2016 in terms of strategy? I'll just leave that to your imagination.
All of that aside, Manafort's trial thus far appears to be unconnected to any Russia-related election shenanigans, which in theory should make President Trump and his enablers rest easy. But the president may simply be living in constant fear, now that Manafort is under scrutiny and his old "fixer" and sort-of-lawyer Michael Cohen has flipped on him.
Last week, Cohen's lawyer released tapes of Cohen and Trump discussing paying off Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who allegedly had a tryst with Trump in 2006. The attempt to pay off McDougal, or catch and kill her story, might constitute a violation of campaign finance law, something I doubt Trump is losing sleep over. A man who has repeatedly paid out millions of dollars to settle fraud cases can probably survive this particular tempest. But we've only just breached the surface of Cohen's Trump dirt pile. He also now claims that Trump knew in advance about the now-infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that featured Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort canoodling with Russian agents peddling ill-gotten dirt on Hillary Clinton. Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, also claims that there were more payoffs prior to the election, including one that involved a pregnancy, and that Cohen has the goods on all of it.
You can tell that Team Trump is worried about this turn of events because they have deliberately lit a trash fire that is visible from space. Former New York City Mayor and current dignity goblin Rudy Giuliani, who plays one of the president's attorneys on television, went out recently and claimed that "collusion is not a crime." The president agrees, and now argues that "collusion is not a crime, but that doesn't matter because there was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats)!" If you're tracking this horror show at home, the president has gone from claiming, on election eve, that "I have nothing to do with Russia, folks," to instructing his mouthpieces to go on national television and tell the country that conspiring with the Russians to undermine an American national election is not actually a crime. This would be like your lawyer looking somberly at the jury during closing arguments and saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, my client didn't commit this murder, but even if he did, this particular homicide is not against the law."
So is this it? Is the most corrupt president in American history listing portside and ready to sink into the deep? We just don't know. We're in for a lot in the coming months, and it's important not to lose sight of the big picture. It reminds me of a scene from the heist classic Reservoir Dogs, when one of the robbers, Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde, tries to convince everyone not to worry about the whereabouts of another conspirator, Mr. Blue. "Either he's alive or he's dead," he deadpans, "or the cops got him ... or they don't." Robert Mueller is either in possession of information that will effectively end Trump's presidency, or he isn't, and pretty soon we'll know either way.
The president knows this, which is almost certainly why he has not and probably will not fire Mueller. He has spent the past 15 months doggedly attacking the legitimacy of Mueller's probe, every day, from the comfort of his Twitter account. It is his only legal and political strategy. The president knows perfectly well what he did or didn't do during the election. He knows whether or not he and his slimy associates at the Trump Organization spent decades breaking laws and laundering money. To believe that they all did nothing wrong is to believe that they have spent two years constructing a rickety Jenga tower of lies for no apparent reason other than the sheer joy of prevaricating. The end game has always been to convince MAGAworld that the probe is illegitimate, and to dare this supine Congress not to do anything about its findings.
So far that's been a pretty smart gamble, as you will never go broke betting on the willingness of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to sell out the country for a chance to cut taxes on rich people one last time. As always, it will almost certainly be up to voters to hold Trump and the GOP accountable. Let's hope they have more sense than the president and his lawyers.