President Trump is fighting back against those who would implicate him in the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election.
The question is whether the counterpunching will bruise the president’s intended targets or lead to self-inflicted wounds.
The highlight of Trump’s Friday morning tweetstorm denouncing the Russia “witch hunt” appeared to confirm a Washington Post report that the president was now under investigation for obstruction of justice, stemming from his abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” Trump tweeted.
That would appear to be a shot across the bow of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the most senior Justice Department official involved in the Russia investigation since Attorney Jeff Sessions recused himself. Rosenstein appointed special counsel Robert Mueller to directly oversee the probe.
Rosenstein released a cryptic statement the evening before about the danger of relying on anonymous sources, though it appeared to be aimed more at a report that the business interests of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner were now of interest to Mueller.
Trump was reportedly sore at Sessions for recusing himself and setting this whole chain of events in motion. The White House took two days to express confidence in Sessions as attorney general after repeated media queries and the Justice Department declined to comment on reports Sessions had offered to resign.
The Post quoted officials as saying an obstruction of justice investigation targeting the president began between Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment, suggesting once again that the Justice Department was Trump’s target.
So it would stand to reason that perhaps Trump was angry at Rosenstein. But then Trump’s legal team denied that the president’s tweet was a confirmation that is under investigation. They acknowledged he was criticizing the anonymously sourced Post report—but stopped short of saying he was disputing it.
How inscrutable. Did the president make a punctuation error? Replacing the exclamation point with a question mark—“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director? Witch Hunt”—changes the meeting from confirming to sarcastically pushing back against the reports.
But then why not dispute the veracity of the story altogether?
Trump’s tweet is problematic on its own terms. He has publicly said that he made the decision to fire Comey irrespective of Rosenstein’s advice. Yet it matters who is being subtweeted here.
For the president, impeachment is a bigger concern that indictment. Democrats might be willing to impeach Trump based on his Comey conversations and nebulous contacts between Russia and Trump world that do not look good on their face, but Republicans aren’t.
Republicans might be more open to where this investigation goes than Democrats were with Bill Clinton and Ken Starr—look at all the investigations they have opened even while in the majority. Nevertheless, they are probably going to require solid evidence of collusion to be willing to remove Trump from office. At a minimum, it is going to require incontrovertible evidence Trump intended to obstruct justice.
Democrats could take the House next year, giving them the power to advance articles of impeachment. But even under the worst case scenario, Republicans will retain the votes in the Senate to keep Trump from being removed from power. Even if the Senate flipped from 52-48 Republican to 52-48 Democratic, 15 Republicans would have to vote to convict Trump.
That’s unlikely to happen without proof of collusion and it certainly isn’t a gettable number if obstruction is still in dispute. Trump may not be able to swing public opinion in his favor as Clinton did with Starr, but he can survive Twitter counterattacks against Comey and even Mueller.
What could change the math for Trump is if he begins to swing wildly, attacking not only the people coming to get him, but officials like Sessions and Rosenstein who are trying to save him from himself. If Trump begins firing such people and the GOP’s political position keeps eroding—pay attention to the special election in Georgia on Tuesday—maybe more Republicans will start to wonder if it’s time for President Pence.
We are a long way off from all of that. But Trump won in part because he was a fighter. In this current brawl, can he avoid punching himself in the face?
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?