The surprise appointment Wednesday of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel to investigate Russia's alleged efforts to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election should have given President Donald Trump and his beleaguered administration political breathing room. But while Trump initially reacted stoically, denying "collusion" between his campaign and "any foreign entity" and casting the appointment as an opportunity to put such charges to rest "quickly," he could not leave well enough alone.
Hours later, "real Donald Trump," as he is known on Twitter, tweeted that the inquiry was "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" and complained that there was never a special counsel to investigate the "illegal acts" committed by the Obama and Clinton administrations. The apparent self-contradiction feeds a growing meta-narrative in the press and political circles that President Trump is too erratic, or too "infantile," as conservative columnist David Brooks wrote this week, to serve in the executive office.
If ever a politician needed to reverse what Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee called the White House's "downward spiral," it is Trump. The president is under fire for interrelated scandals of his own making, all within a week—his firing of F.B.I. director James Comey for refusing to end his bureau's Russia investigation, his alleged disclosure of secret information to the Russians, and reports that he tried to thwart a criminal investigation into his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, amid reports that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russia's ambassador in Washington. After the week's events, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that Trump's policy agenda was being endangered by his antics, adding that what the White House needed now was "a little less drama."
Each new manifestation of impulsiveness by Trump is a form of self-sabotage, for his critics carry their conclusions well beyond established facts. Consider The New York Times's disclosure Tuesday that Trump secretly tried to stifle the F.B.I.'s investigation of Flynn the day after his dismissal. The charge forced Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller as special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. The charge was based on a memo written by James Comey about his alleged conversation with Trump at a private meeting on February 14 at the White House. Times reporter Michael Schmidt acknowledged that he had not seen Comey's actual memo but was read portions of it by two officials. Nor does his story accuse the president of trying to "obstruct" justice by going easy on Flynn. Rather, the story repeatedly calls the alleged Oval Office conversation, which the White House has denied took place, an effort by Trump to "influence" the investigation.
This distinction, however, was apparently lost on the growing number of Trump's critics. Over the weekend, Harvard professor Laurence Tribe became the first prominent legal scholar to call for Trump's impeachment. In a speech on the House floor on Wednesday, Democratic Representative Al Green of Texas issued a similar call. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who has evolved into an ardent Trump critic, accused his former friend of having fomented a "constitutional crisis" through his reckless acts and shifting explanations of them. Also on Wednesday, the New York Times's lead editorial, ignoring the careful distinction drawn by its own reporter, joined Tribe in accusing the president of having obstructed justice.
That crime, however, requires that someone attempt through a specific act—such as threatening witnesses, destroying evidence, lying to the FBI, or preventing investigators from doing their jobs—to interfere with a judicial proceeding. But as Jonathan Turley, a liberal attorney and Trump critic, has argued, what is publicly known so far does not constitute "proof" of obstruction of justice or an impeachable offense. There was no grand jury or judicial proceeding underway in February when Trump allegedly asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. While the memo, he wrote, is a "valid source of concern and worthy of further investigation," and while Mueller's investigation may ultimately conclude that a crime has or has not been committed, he called such a charge "hyperventilated" based on what is known so far and "hardly proof of a crime, much less an impeachable offense." The same can be said of charges that Trump endangered intelligence sources and methods when he "shared secrets with Russians," as the normally conservative Wall Street Journal headline declared in its rendition of the story initially published by the Washington Post. According to the Post and other leading papers that confirmed its story, Trump endangered a sensitive source by sharing secret information obtained from a close U.S. ally with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador to Washington in an Oval Office meeting the day after Comey's dismissal. The intelligence supposedly concerned where and how the U.S. had learned of a terrorist plot against commercial aircraft. The Post reported that, after the meeting, White House officials had called the CIA and the NSA to warn them of possible blowback from the compromised country and to encourage them to do damage control.
Yes, the timing and appearance of such a meeting were poor. They forced the White House and prompted the Kremlin to deny that Trump had disclosed U.S. intelligence sources or methods. National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the much-respected former military officer, made a rare appearance in the White House press room personally to deny the report. "I was in the room," McMaster said. "It didn't happen." But his carefully crafted statement, unlike almost any issued by his boss, denied only that sources or methods were disclosed. He stopped short of denying that Trump had shared secret intelligence with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. An angry tweet from Trump the following day asserted that he could legally declassify and distribute secret information as he saw fit. McMaster agreed that Trump had legal authority to do so but disclosed that the president had acted on his own, apparently in the spur of the moment, while recounting to the Russians how the U.S. had learned of the terrorist threat.
This has not prevented the Washington Post editorial page from calling upon Trump to cancel his first foreign trip abroad Friday to quell growing concerns about his suitability for office. But that is precisely not what Trump should do. The president needs to calm Washington down by getting out of town—the sooner, the better. He must also let Mueller get on with his investigation and stop making contradictory, self-defeating statements in interviews, speeches, and early-morning tweets. His reputation, now severely damaged due to such impulsive displays, can only be restored through the self-discipline that has heretofore eluded him. Whether he is temperamentally capable of such discipline, however, has never been more unclear.