Donald Trump has been so consumed by the threat posed by the Russia scandal that, according to a Politico report, the president has been known to inject, “I’m not under investigation,” without prompting, into various conversations with associates and allies.
Of course, that’s not going to happen anymore. For only the third time in the history of the country, the American president is the subject of a federal criminal investigation – a fact Trump confirmed in a tweet this morning.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt”
As presidential tweets go, this one’s a real doozy, and it’s worth unpacking because the details will have real consequences.
Trump isn’t referring to Robert Mueller, who’s overseeing the investigation into the broader scandal, but rather to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom Mueller technically answers to in the Justice Department’s hierarchy because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in matters related to this controversy.
There was already some discussion about whether Rosenstein would also have to recuse himself – he may be a witness to the president’s alleged crimes – and Trump admonishing Rosenstein in public probably makes the DOJ official’s recusal more likely.
Indeed, while White House officials reportedly talked Trump out of firing Mueller, it’s suddenly easy to imagine the president showing the deputy AG the door, sooner rather than later.
Making matters worse, Trump’s tweet isn’t altogether true, either. According to the president’s own version of events, as articulated in a nationally televised interview, Trump was going to fire then-FBI Director James Comey regardless of what Rosenstein said. It’s a little late to argue the opposite now.
What’s more, whether the president realizes this or not, he’s being investigated for obstruction of justice – and while that includes the Comey firing, the controversy is broader than this one action.
Stepping back, though, it’s hard not to notice that the president is generally at his most satisfied when he’s attacking a foe: Hillary Clinton, news organizations and journalists, Democrats, U.S. allies who’ve bothered him in some way, etc. Trump seems to operate from the assumption that if you’re not hitting someone, then someone is hitting you, so it’s best to remain on the offensive at all times.
But with this presidency in crisis, due almost entirely to his own misguided actions, Trump is like a blindfolded child at a birthday party, eager to hit the pinata, but unsure where to swing the bat. The Republican is desperate to find a foe, and this morning he decided it’s Rod Rosenstein. By dinner, he’s likely to start complaining about some new perceived enemy.
This isn’t especially healthy, but the president can’t seem to help himself.
Postscript: Rosenstein sent out a very strange press statement last night, urging Americans to be skeptical of reports based on anonymous sources. No one seems to know why he issued the statement, but with Trump targeting him on Twitter this morning, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn Rosenstein released this at the instruction of the West Wing.