August 22, 2019

Does Trump Work for Russia? Let Mueller Do His Job

Special Counsel Robert Mueller

When it was reported in the past week that President Donald Trump frequently talked to his aides last year about his desire to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, alarm bells went off across the political spectrum and around the world. Such an action would have almost certainly precipitated the end of NATO, thereby eliminating the foundation of the post-World War II security structure and leaving both the United States and its Western allies at serious risk to the increasing threat of Russian aggression.

Given Trump’s resistance to admitting Russian interference in the 2016 election; his extremely solicitous behavior toward and secret conversations with Vladmir Putin; and the suspicious dealings with Russian government representatives by Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his first national security adviser Michael Flynn, his son Donald Jr., and his son-in-law Jared  Kushner, it would be logical to assume that he is acting in obeisance toward one of the world’s most authoritarian and belligerent leaders. 

But Trump has been complaining about this country’s financial commitments to international organizations for more than 30 years. So it is also reasonable to conclude that Trump’s long-held nationalistic and isolationistic tendencies that have driven his thinking on trade, immigration and security policy led him to the conclusion that a coalition like NATO had outlived its usefulness. Alternatively, one could make a plausible argument that Trump’s threats were nothing more than negotiation brinksmanship, an aggressive (and fairly successful) effort to force our allies to increase their financial contributions to the alliance.

We don’t know yet which of these motivations drove Trump, but that hasn’t stopped most of us from convincing ourselves that we do. And most of use have come to those conclusions based less on our knowledge of U.S.-Russian relations or geopolitical history than our opinions about immigration, climate change and Brett Kavanaugh. The president has become a Rorschach test for most voters, and most of us now view his individual policy decisions almost completely within the context of our broader regard — or disregard — for him. But that means that we often leap to conclusions before we have all the facts at hand. Resisting that impulse requires a level of patience and perseverance, which, understandably, is in short supply.

When it comes down to it, we don’t know if Trump works for the Russians. But Special Counsel Robert Mueller does know — and appears to be very close to telling the American people what he knows. At least for now, whether you happen to believe that Trump is a criminal, a hero, an isolationist, a snake-oil salesman or some combination thereof, that has to be good enough.

“Don’t get me wrong. … If Trump has been doing Putin’s dirty work — wittingly or unwittingly — then he should be removed from office and sentenced to prison.”

Don’t get me wrong. I would like to know just as much as you if the president of the United States is an agent of this country’s most significant geopolitical foe. If Trump has been doing Putin’s dirty work — wittingly or unwittingly — then he should be removed from office and sentenced to prison. If his actions are simply bluster and braggadocio from a narcissistic chief executive, more conventional political remedies are available through the 2020 election. And if this was a misbegotten scheme to open a hotel in Moscow that spiraled into something far more nefarious, then Congress, under its powers established by the U.S. Constitution, will have to decide what to do about a corrupt leader of the executive branch.

At some point in the weeks or months ahead, Mueller will submit his report. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will then decide whether the information in that report justifies initiating impeachment proceedings, and if it does, the Republican-controlled Senate will decide whether to follow suit. Removing a sitting president from office requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate, so Trump’s fate ultimately will be decided by exactly 20 GOP senators. Their votes will be determined by the veracity of Mueller’s conclusions and the strength of his arguments.

Why the civics lesson? Because the process described in the preceding paragraph is going to take a very long time. More than two years passed from the beginning of the Watergate hearings until Richard Nixon’s resignation. The charges against Bill Clinton were defeated in the Senate roughly 13 months after his relationship with Monica Lewinsky became public. If Trump is impeached, the process is unlikely to conclude until some point at the height of the 2020 presidential election. Which means that those 20 Republican senators will be making their decisions in the middle of one of the most polarizing and divisive campaign seasons in American history.

Either consciously or intuitively, Trump understands this. The lesson he has internalized from his years on the national political landscape is that he gains nothing from attempting to persuade undecided or skeptical voters to join his team. His victories have been almost entirely predicated on his ability to motivate his most dedicated supporters. He has seen that his ability to leverage Republican members of Congress depends on his base’s willingness to pressure their elected representatives into falling in line behind him.

The midterm elections showed the limitations of Trump’s approach. His allies not only were outnumbered by his opponents, but those opponents were much more motivated than his troops — the result of which was a historic Republican defeat in the House of Representatives. But Trump’s efforts to excite the GOP base in red-state Senate races preserved his party’s majority in that chamber, reinforcing his belief that he can prevail only when he’s able to incite his backers to a fever pitch.

One other thing about those 20 Republican Senators: Trump knows he cannot broaden his foundation of political support to convince them to save him. His only option is to inflame GOP loyalists to a level of outrage against his — and their — enemies. While Trump is highly skilled at rousing his supporters, he is even more talented at goading his opponents into a frenzy. He is highly aware that high-dudgeon Democrats can inspire Republican fury just as effectively as he can.

Along with this scorched-earth communications strategy, Trump’s personal makeup requires a constant state of highly visible bellicosity as well. An old quote, attributed at various times to Irish author Brendan Behan and basketball player Dennis Rodman, says, “The only bad press is an obituary.”

Or, as Trump stated in his book, “The Art of The Deal”: “Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.” 

Over the course of a career in the ferocious New York City media market, Trump learned how to fight for space on Page Six and for time on Howard Stern’s radio show. Trump saw that turning unfavorable attention into something favorable is much easier than trying to get an audience to listen when it is barely aware of your existence. This approach brought him tremendous benefits once he announced his candidacy; as the ongoing conflicts and controversies he provoked on the campaign trail allowed him to completely overshadow his more measured rivals. While Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio played by old-school Marquess of Queensbury rules, Trump was the political equivalent of a UFC fighter. By the time they understood what he had done to them, he was the Republican nominee.

Two-and-a-half years later, little has changed. For reasons having to do with both strategy and temperament, Trump’s default reaction to almost any public or media opportunity is to look for opportunities to cause even more outrage. When The New York Times reported last weekend that the FBI had opened an investigation into whether Trump had been working on behalf of Russia, Trump turned up the outrage meter to the highest possible level.

Combined with the escalating fight over the government shutdown, Trump was brawling on multiple fronts — which is right where he wants to be.

Trump knows that most voters dislike him. He knows he can’t change their disgust. But he understands that his path to victory relies on his ability to make his opponents just as unlikable. So, he baits his foes into not just reacting to him, but overreacting.

For Trump’s critics, waiting on Mueller’s report might not be as viscerally satisfying as responding in-kind. But the special counsel’s report is coming. Then we’ll know for sure. But not before.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.