Since the publication of his attorney general’s short report on the outcome of the Mueller investigation, Donald Trump has looked like a president unleashed. He has attacked his enemies, demanded the resignation of journalists who he says peddled “fake news”, and advanced controversial policies on health and immigration. With a cloud over his presidency lifted, he is free to act like never before. Meanwhile, Democrats feel under pressure to move on to discussing other issues or risk looking like McCarthyite obsessives.
Such, anyway, is the conventional wisdom. But what if it is wrong?
When Trump is caught red-handed in a lie or scandal, he has a time-worn playbook for weathering it. First, he lies about the facts of the matter, attempting to create enough uncertainty to inoculate his base and a portion of the rest of the population against accepting the reality of what has happened. Second, he pivots to attacking his antagonists (which in the past have included a dead senator, the father of a fallen soldier, and judges of Mexican heritage). Finally, he tries to change the subject.
Far from Trump emerging into a new phase of his presidency with the release of the Barr report, he has in fact lapsed into this age-old pattern. Phases one and two came quickly, with Trump and his surrogates claiming that the president had been completely exonerated even though Mueller explicitly did not make this judgment. They then accused the media and Democrats of corruptly conspiring to bring down the president.
But it is the next part of the administration’s response, phase three, which is so uniquely Trumpian. The president has frequently managed to survive scandals that might have felled other politicians because he is so adept at changing the conversation by sparking a new furor, which eclipses the old one. The result has been a presidency of serial scandals which can easily induce a sense of numbness in his opponents, while making himself appear invulnerable to any particular one of the hundreds of controversies encircling him.
Since the release of the Barr report, Trump has attempted to change the topic in two ways. The first is on healthcare. Last Monday, the Trump administration filed a letter in a Texas court declaring that it would like to see the entirety of the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – declared unconstitutional. Backing a wacky legal challenge that has been levied against the ACA, the administration is advocating stripping healthcare benefits from tens of millions of Americans with no plan for how to provide them with alternative coverage. Although the move is a sure political loser for Republicans, Trump charged ahead anyway.
Second, Trump has stepped up his anti-immigrant rhetoric and threatened to close the US border with Mexico, another self-destructive move which would harm millions of Americans. Nearly $1.7bn in commerce flows over the border daily, and automakers and farmers – exactly the Americans who Trump claims to stand up for – would be most affected by the closure. It would also undermine cooperation with Mexico, which is necessary to handle the migrant crisis. For good measure, Trump announced last week that he would cut off aid to Central American countries that need it in order to stem the flow of refugees.
Such self-destructive measures on healthcare and immigration demonstrate that what Trump is really after is headlines, not solutions. The fact that the president is so keen to change the subject now ought to make Democrats think twice about the wisdom of going along with his wishes. Instead, they need to stay focused on obtaining a full copy of the Mueller report and making its contents known to the public.
In 2016, the integrity of America’s electoral process was attacked by a foreign power. Since that time, the president and his allies have engaged in a sinister and baffling pattern of behavior designed to hide their own connections to that power. All we know so far is that Mueller was not able to prove that they criminally colluded with Russia, and that he was unable to exonerate the president of criminally obstructing the inquiry. Before we can move on, we need to know much more.
This is not about relitigating the 2016 election, as some Republicans claim. It is about establishing the principle that America has a president, not a king, and that the president is bound by the rule of law. It is about returning a bare modicum of accountability to American public life after years of congressional Republicans shirking their constitutional duty to hold the executive branch to account. It is about finding out exactly how American national security was compromised in 2016, and why the president and his surrogates are so keen to pretend it wasn’t. Finally, it is about restoring faith in American government among the public, who polls show are waiting for the final conclusions of Mueller’s investigation before they believe that the president is exonerated.
Perhaps that’s why Donald Trump won’t just release the report, and instead wants to change the subject. Democrats shouldn’t let him.