President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the East Room of the White House in Washington,…
Midway through Donald Trump’s White House press conference yesterday with Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, there was an exchange on the Russian scandal that offered an interesting peek into the American president’s thinking.
Q: Mr. President, I’d like to get your reaction to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Russian interference in the campaign. Was this the right move, or is this part of a “witch hunt”?
TRUMP: Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself – and the Russians, zero.
The president’s mastery of English often falls short, and this was a rather dramatic example of Trump saying what he didn’t mean. I’m pretty sure he intended to say was that there was “no collusion between” him and Russia, but he can only “speak for” himself.
There was a similar exchange last week when the president sat down with NBC News’ Lester Holt and declared, “I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns; I’m not talking about anything else; I’m not under investigation.” For emphasis, he repeated the phrase a half-dozen times.
What’s more, there’s the latest New York Times reporting, which Rachel highlighted on the show last night, which noted that Trump personally called then-FBI Director James Comey, soon after taking office, to ask “when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation.”
A not-so-subtle picture is starting to emerge. The president seems to realize that people around him – officials at the highest levels of his political operation during the campaign – may be brought down by the Russia scandal, but Trump is prepared to throw them under the bus and keep driving, as quickly as possible, to protect himself. He likely assumes that so long as there’s no evidence of him personally chatting with Vladimir Putin, helping coordinate Russia’s attack on the U.S. election, then Trump is personally in the clear.
If leading figures from Trump World aren’t as fortunate, in the president’s mind, that’s their problem. He can only “speak for” himself.
This is not a sound plan.
First, whether he likes it or not, the buck stops with Trump. If the Trump campaign cooperated with Russia during Russia’s espionage scheme, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency will be called further into question, regardless of his personal interactions with Moscow (or lack thereof). If members of Team Trump are indicted for actions they took in his name, the firewall between the president and his aides will, as a political matter, start to crumble.
Second, Trump’s plan to separate himself from those around him who’ve allegedly crossed legal lines has limits. It was, after all, the president who personally fired an FBI director because of his dissatisfaction with the investigation into the Russia scandal. It’s tough for a president to pin the blame on everyone around him when he’s accused of taking direct steps, all on his own, to obstruct justice.
Finally, think about the message Trump’s comments yesterday sent to White House staffers and those who worked on the campaign. The president made it clear that he’s looking out for Number One – himself – and he’s not overly concerned with what happens to anyone else. If members of Team Trump start thinking along similar lines, he may be alarmed by the consequences.