Donald Trump got bad reviews in the press — no surprise — when he announced that Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and federal prosecutor, would join his legal team in the Trump-Russia special counsel investigation. The 74-year-old Giuliani is not as sharp as he was, some said, and isn’t really a practising lawyer any more. How can you effectively defend the President by slipping out of fatcat dinners at New York steakhouses for quick hits on Fox News?
That was then. Now, it appears hiring Giuliani was a key part of a new and effective Trump strategy. Just a few months ago, Trump was cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, mostly refraining from attacking him directly, and hoping the investigation would somehow go away. Now, Trump is waging and, if the polls are correct, winning a political war on him. ‘He has turned this investigation on its head,’ one Trump campaign veteran said recently, with much admiration.
Trump’s resurgence happens to coincide with the growing realisation that Mueller might never make his much-anticipated collusion case against the President — the charge that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia to rig the 2016 election. And that, in turn, is creating political ripples: Democrats who were hoping Mueller would hand them a ready-to-use case against Trump are worried that appearing overly eager to bring down the President could cost them in November’s midterm elections.
There’s no doubt Trump’s first strategy for dealing with the Mueller investigation was not working. Although talking heads spent hours speculating on whether the President would fire the special counsel, the White House plan for dealing with Mueller was mostly focused on cooperating with him. Over the years, previous presidents have made all sorts of creative efforts to resist subpoenas from investigators. Trump didn’t do that; instead, he obediently turned over reams of documents to Mueller.
By all reports, Trump’s lawyers, Washington veterans Ty Cobb and John Dowd, urged the President to cooperate and led him to believe that Mueller would likely wrap up his investigation by the beginning of this year. Problem was, 2018 arrived and Mueller was still going strong. Dowd left Trump’s legal team, followed by Cobb.
In their place, Trump brought in new people and adopted a two-track strategy. For the inside track, he hired a well-respected Washington legal veteran, Emmet Flood, who was part of Bill Clinton’s defence team in the late 1990s. Crafting the President’s next legal moves, Flood has not said a word in public since he took the job.
For the outside track — the lawyer who would make the President’s case on television — Trump chose Giuliani. The former mayor created controversy almost immediately with a TV appearance in which he mangled some of the facts of the Stormy Daniels affair. But as the days and weeks wore on, Giuliani breathed life into the President’s public defence. Powered by a barrage of Trump tweets, Giuliani’s daily stream of attacks on Mueller raised questions in the public’s mind about the special counsel’s fairness and competence.
It’s working. A new Harvard-Harris poll shows that 58 per cent of Americans say Mueller should finish up his investigation within six months. (Most would actually like to see him done in three months.) A Marist poll asked respondents whether Mueller has been fair to Trump and found that just 45 per cent agreed — down from 53 per cent a few months ago. And a Monmouth poll found that the number of Americans who believe Mueller’s investigation should continue has dropped from 62 per cent last year to 54 per cent now.
Trump’s new strategy is not really new, of course. He has basically adopted the course Clinton chose back in 1998 when faced with independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation into whether the former president lied about a sexual relationship with a former White House intern. Clinton had a simple plan — attack the prosecutor — and his surrogates did it every day. To take one example, look at a New York Times front-page headline from February 1998: ‘President’s Aides Expand Offensive to Counter Starr; Urging Inquiry on Leaks; Prosecutor is Denounced as “Corrupt” and Accused of Leading “Witch Hunt”.’
Note the main points of the story —White House attacks prosecutor, calls for investigator to be investigated, calls prosecutor corrupt, calls the probe a witch hunt. That is exactly — exactly — what Trump is doing now. And from Trump’s perspective, of course, the important thing to remember is that it worked for Clinton.
As luck would have it, Trump’s resurgence has come at a time when the prospects of Mueller making a collusion case seem dimmer than ever. It’s always possible the special counsel has some big indictments he is ready to unveil (he has caught people by surprise in the past) but some Trump partisans have become increasingly confident the big collusion charges just aren’t coming.
The reason they think so is that while they don’t know what Mueller will do in the future, they do know what he has already done. And they look at the Trump campaign figures who have been indicted or pleaded guilty: former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign deputy Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and temporary volunteer foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. None has been charged with any crime involving collusion. Manafort and Gates were charged with financial crimes, some of which went back a decade before the 2016 campaign; Flynn and Papadopoulos with lying to the FBI.
But there’s been nothing from Mueller alleging a scheme between the Trump campaign and Russia to swing the election. If there were a collusion scheme, Trump supporters reason, wouldn’t Manafort — with his extensive dealings with pro-Russian Ukrainians — have been part of it? The same for Gates, who was neck deep in Manafort’s business. Flynn, too, had dealings with Russia. What kind of collusion scheme could have existed without those men being part of it? And yet Mueller has investigated and charged each of them, and none of the charges alleged collusion.
Then there is the Democrats’ dilemma. Despite the desire of many to see Trump behind bars in an orange jumpsuit, it appears Mueller shares the widely held opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The proper, constitutionally prescribed remedy for presidential misconduct is impeachment, a process that begins in the House of Representatives and, if the House votes to impeach, moves to the Senate for trial.
What that means is that whatever Mueller finds involving Trump — whether it is evidence of collusion or evidence that Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation — he will likely write up in a final report that will make its way to Congress. Some Democrats have openly hoped a Mueller report will be a road map for impeachment. And they are ready: last December, House Democrats forced a test vote on articles of impeachment, and 58 Democrats supported it.
The party’s base is even more eager. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 71 per cent of Democratic voters want to see Trump impeached if Democrats win control of the House.
But that’s just Democrats. When Republicans and Independents are added to the count, just 38 per cent support impeachment. That number might be higher than Trump wants, but it is nowhere near high enough for the House to act — much less the Senate, which would require a two-thirds vote to remove the President.
It would be an understatement to say that Democratic leaders, caught between their anti-Trump base and the larger electorate, are nervous. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader who hopes to become Speaker again, remembers well the situation in the midterm elections of 2006, when Democrats sought to win control of the House at the same time some members wanted to impeach George W. Bush on charges of lying to get the US into a war in Iraq. There was little public support for that, and Pelosi saw a campaign pledge to impeach Bush as political suicide. She openly declared that impeachment was ‘off the table’ and went on to win the election.
Can Pelosi say that today to the 71 per cent of her voters who want Trump’s head? It won’t be easy. The White House appears to be perfectly happy to let Democrats twist themselves into a pretzel over impeachment. This autumn Republicans will argue that, under Trump, unemployment is down, wages are up, the economy is humming, the world is safer — and all Democrats want to talk about is getting rid of the President.
Meanwhile, Trump’s defenders will take every opportunity to make the case that impeachment, should it come, will be illegitimate. In a recent TV appearance, Giuliani freely admitted that when he discusses the newly revealed fact that an FBI informant tried to insinuate himself into the Trump campaign, he’s doing it to undermine public support for Mueller in anticipation of impeachment. ‘We have to do it in defending the President… because eventually the decision here is going to be impeach, not impeach,’ Giuliani explained. ‘So our jury… is the American people.’
Of course, everything depends on the results of the Mueller investigation; if he reveals some new blockbuster evidence, that could change everything. But today, as the campaign season approaches, it’s entirely possible that it could be Democrats who are on the defensive about impeachment and the Trump-Russia investigation — a situation no one could have imagined just a few months ago.