With special counsel Robert Mueller unveiling his first indictments and a plea deal in the Russia case, President Donald Trump should do what’s hardest for him – nothing.
The indictment of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates – together with news of a plea agreement with former Trump foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos – will generate a torrent of negative press coverage of the sort that drives Trump crazy.
His instinct to lash out is his worst enemy. Trump is at more peril from his own reaction than from any of the facts that have been uncovered by Mueller, congressional investigators or the press to this point. If he were to fire Mueller, he’d endanger his presidency – and perhaps over nothing.
The proverbial net, as far as we know, isn’t closing in. The indictment of Manafort is about Manafort, namely his shady lobbying business. He had long crossed over into the netherworld of representing foreign malefactors and shouldn’t have been allowed within 100 miles of an American presidential election. That he ran the Trump campaign for a crucial period in the summer of 2016 speaks to the campaign’s desperation for talent at that point – a disreputable hired gun that no other Republican campaign would have considered hiring brought a note of professionalism to the operation.
There is no suggestion in the indictment that any of Manafort’s alleged wrongdoing, which dates back to 2006, had anything to do with the campaign. He failed to register as a foreign lobbyist for his work for Ukrainian political players, a fairly common offense among lobbyists that is usually remedied by an amended filing. He also is accused of laundering millions of dollars from his Ukrainian bounty to escape the notice of American authorities.
Unless Manafort knows details of a collusion scheme that we have no evidence of yet and is about to flip (no sign of that, either), none of this need directly affect Trump. If Manafort is innocent, he’s a dirty lobbyist who just barely stayed on the right side of the law; if he’s guilty, he’s a dirty lobbyist who also committed crimes.
As for George Papadopoulos, his plea for lying to the FBI actually involves his work for the campaign. He misled investigators about the timing and nature of his contacts with Russians who wanted to set up a Vladimir Putin-Donald Trump meeting and spoke of dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is suggestive, but Papadopoulos was a bit player, and it’s not clear the talk went anywhere.
If Trump fired Mueller in reaction to all this, he would take a matter that now is at the edges of his world – Manafort has already been gingerly tossed under the bus, and no one knows Papadopoulos – and make it a truly all-consuming crisis. And for what? As a practical matter, there is no way to end the investigation. If Mueller is dismissed, all the special counsel’s materials will presumably be handed over to Congress, and he would, at some point, be a lead witness in impeachment hearings.
The option of pre-emptively pardoning everyone targeted by Mueller also is foolhardy. A Trump pardon of Manafort would associate the president with the lobbyist’s alleged malfeasance when the point should be to establish distance, and would convince everyone that Trump has something explosive to hide.
The calculus here isn’t complicated. If Trump is guilty of serious wrongdoing, there is nothing he can do to stop it from being uncovered. If, on the other hand, he’s innocent, firing Mueller would be a catastrophic error.
The proximate cause of Trump’s ouster of James Comey appears to have been Trump’s irritation that the FBI director wouldn’t publicly state that Trump wasn’t under investigation. So Trump acted out of pique and made things much worse for himself – in fact, got the special counsel probe.
If the president wants to repeat that unhappy experience, he should ax Mueller or issue a barrage of pardons. Otherwise, he should sit tight.