Tension is heightening in the Oval Office, and President Donald Trump looks ready to blow his top. The office and hotel room of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, were raided Monday, and agents seized business records, emails, and documents related to numerous potentially damaging topics, including payments to Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress with whom Trump allegedly had an affair.
The raid came about as a result of a referral by special counsel Robert Mueller, who, as the entire universe knows, is conducting an investigation into the Trump campaign and its relationship with Russian officials during the 2016 election. The investigation has been remarkably productive. In less than a year, Mueller has issued more than 100 criminal counts against 19 people and three companies. Five, including three Trump associates, have pleaded guilty.
While all are watching Mueller’s investigation and its results with great interest, pondering what he and the FBI know or will soon learn, there is another direction we should be looking.
We should be looking directly at Trump, and pondering what his future actions might be, given potential outcomes of the investigations. While Mueller and the FBI investigate and may not know, Trump knows exactly what he is guilty of, if anything, and the likelihood of whether it being revealed will destroy his presidency. Even Trump supporter Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina worries about what the president is hiding, telling one of Trump’s lawyers on March 18 that if his client is innocent, he should “act like it.”
If Trump is blameless for any misdeed that could end his presidency, the argument is moot. If he is guilty, the implications are profound. World changing — even disastrous.
If he is guilty, Trump’s options are few, yet clear. He has to hope there is no meaningful revelation, and in the meantime work to undermine, cover up or obscure any attempt to expose it. This is exactly what he is doing. He must also continue to undermine the credibility of the investigation — the Justice Department and the FBI, as well as the media who will report on it. If one of his scandals gains traction in the conservative mind, or if the investigation bears fruit that conservatives see as legitimate, they will turn with the hope that a Trump impeachment and a Mike Pence presidency will save the conservative gains that have been made under Trump (court appointments, regulatory rollbacks, tax cuts) and the Republican Party. They’ll have no choice.
And when the the Republican Congress and other members of the establishment — including Fox News — turn on Trump, they will turn hard, trying to distance themselves as much as they can from this hot mess of a presidency. All the 2016 Republican candidates for president and members of Congress who were critical of Trump during the campaign and spoke of how unfit he was for office, only later to begrudgingly fall in line, will return to those statements, telling America how they warned of the danger of Trump, and that they only went along with him because the American people spoke. They’ll say they did everything they could do to help implement conservative policies, but that Trump failed, and failed on his own.
It will be scorched earth. Trump will become a pariah. Undeniably the worst president of all time, according to Democrats and Republicans alike.
And this could all happen before the midterm elections. It certainly should, if he is guilty.
Trump knows this. He fears this. Trump knows exactly what information is out there that will harm him irreparably. He knows what the investigation seeks or has found. He knows or fears what’s on the CD Daniels’ lawyer has hinted at, or what Russian President Vladimir Putin has. Or unimaginable other things. And he is planning first to do his best not to let it become public, and second to overcome it if it does.
Trump also knows that if his presidency, his reputation, and his legacy is to survive, he needs to accomplish something big. Grand. Historic. Mythic. He needs something that will make his multitude of sins seem small.
He needs a Pearl Harbor. Or 9/11, where all of America, maybe even much of the world, rallies behind him.
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser — who coincidentally assumed the role Monday — is just the guy to find it.
Robert Leonard is an anthropologist who hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa.