By appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel to probe possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein endangers Trump’s presidency while sparing Republicans the worst.
For Trump, this potentially lethal appointment punishes a sequence of judgments — regarding former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — so ill-considered that they reflect on his mental stability:
First, Trump concealed from the public and his senior advisers that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had informed him that Flynn had lied to the FBI, Mike Pence, senior staff, and the media — specifically, about Flynn discussing sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador.
Second, Trump kept Flynn in office until The Washington Post exposed his knowledge of Flynn’s lies — conduct which raises serious questions about why Trump protected Flynn; whether Trump knew of his conversations all along; and whether other contacts between Flynn and Russia during the campaign may have motivated Trump to cover for Flynn.
Third, according to former FBI director James Comey, Trump asked Comey to shut down the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, Trump’s principal conduit to the Russians.
Fourth, Trump then tried to extract a promise of personal loyalty from the punctilious Comey, attempting to undermine the integrity and independence that is Comey’s professional calling card.
Fifth, when Comey insisted on continuing the investigation, Trump extracted a letter from Rosenstein questioning Comey’s judgment in publicly discussing the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Trump then used this as his preposterous pretext for firing Comey, reducing the widely respected Rosenstein to his pawn.
Sixth, Trump then told Lester Holt that he had resolved to fire Comey prior to receiving Rosenstein’s letter, making it clear that he had acted because of the Russia inquiry.
This sequence reeks of coverup. But it also reflects a narcissist’s fatal inability to see other people for who they are. By attempting to make Comey and Rosenstein his puppets, he provoked a fatal confluence of ills — the revelation that Comey made notes of his meetings with Trump, and Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
For Trump, Mueller is a dire choice. He, like Comey, has a dearly won reputation for independence. And as Rosenstein well knows, at the core of that reputation is an alliance Mueller formed with Comey in an earlier test of integrity.
In 2004, as Deputy Attorney General, Comey opposed a broad surveillance program advocated by Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez. When the issue came to a head, Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized, leaving Comey in day-to-day charge. In a widely-reported confrontation between the principals at Ashcroft’s bedside, Mueller supported Comey, who had threatened to resign in protest.
Faced with this, President Bush sided with Comey and Mueller. Their famous stand, in all likelihood, led to Comey’s appointment by Barack Obama as FBI director, setting up Comey’s conflict with President Trump — which, in the exquisite irony wrought by Rosenstein, now serves as prelude to Mueller’s advent as special counsel.
The upshot? For Trump, there is the increased likelihood that we will someday know why he is so determined to avoid scrutiny of any relationship between his campaign and Russia. Less noticed is that Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller relieves Republicans from an agonizing choice — supporting Trump, or pursuing an inquiry likely to endanger Trump’s presidency while infuriating his base.
For Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and, especially, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Mueller appointment is a lifeline, enabling them to pursue the Republican agenda while distancing themselves from the fraught subject of Trump and, more broadly, from the president himself.
In his frenzy and imbalance, Trump has created a two-headed menace. To the investigation of collusion with Russia, he has added his apparent efforts to derail that investigation and, thereby, to obstruct justice. Mueller will pursue both. More than before, the president who cares for no one but himself is alone.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
And so we watch him, whining about a “witch hunt” that inflicts on him more suffering than ever endured by an American president, while Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, gleefully offers to serve as his character witness.
Truly, as the Greeks said long ago, character is fate.Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.