Trump’s Flawed Strategy: Keep the Base Close

Drew Harwell has a piece in the Washington Post that looks at the unusual behavior of Donald Trump Jr. Here’s the key takeaway:

Presidential children traditionally serve to soften and humanize their fathers, reminding voters that the nation’s leader can be a family man, too. But Trump Jr. has sharpened his father’s ­already-pointed edges, often amplifying the president’s grudges.

On Twitter, he regularly jabs at the president’s antagonists, from liberal media personalities to Republican politicians to kneeling football players…

…He often retweets or references far-right voices, as well as websites aimed at conservatives, such as Gateway Pundit, the Federalist and Breitbart News. Earlier this month, he retweeted a comment that the Clintons were “an unscrupulous gang of thugs” and alluded to a fringe-right conspiracy theory alleging that the couple covered up a murder.

As Harwell details quite well, this isn’t a change in strategy or reaction to current events. Trump Jr. has been fulfilling this role since the beginning of his father’s presidential campaign. However, the behavior is more suspect now that Trump Jr. and his father’s administration are under so much scrutiny. What might have worked as a political matter could well be ill-advised as a legal one. Trump Jr. hasn’t been arrested yet, but he still should be advised of his right to remain silent and that any Tweet can be used against him in a court of law.

It appears to be deeply ingrained in the Trump family that the best defense is an obnoxious offense, and that may be true when you’re a well-financed privately-held business that regularly defaults on contracts and engages in fraud. It’s a way of bullying your way through life that can be very effective in normal litigation. It seems needlessly risky in a case where you’re giving sworn statements to federal law officers and members of Congress.

With the news that Michael Flynn has probably turned state’s witness against the president, it might be understandable that the Trump family would go to time-tested strategies. For example, why not first make sure that the base is reassured?

“[Trump Jr. is] very smart to be in the spotlight,” said Charlie Kirk, a friend and the founder of the conservative college and high school group Turning Point USA. “Would they stop the investigation if he stopped tweeting? He’s in a situation where either you defend yourself, reassure the base, reassure the supporters, or stay silent. And if you’re totally silent, it only increases suspicion.”

The Trump base is with him, Kirk added: “Most people can’t even keep up with this stuff, anyway.”

This is why the president is attacking the father of a black basketball player and black athletes from the NFL. He’s trying to distract people from focusing on his collapsing defense against the Russia allegations. He doesn’t want his supporters looking at the man he hired to be his first national security adviser or the man he tapped to guide him through the Republican convention and then chair his national campaign.

The special counsel is also eyeing Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., for offenses far more severe. Last December, the Flynns allegedly took a meeting with agents of the Turkish government, in which they discussed arranging the extrajudicial rendition (a.k.a. kidnapping) of a legal U.S. resident in exchange for $15 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. That resident was Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric turned American charter-school founder whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed for the failed coup attempt against his regime in July 2016.

At the time the coup was in motion, Flynn praised it. Erdogan might have been democratically elected, but he was also an Islamist with authoritarian tendencies, and thus, Flynn reasoned, his ouster would be “worth clapping for.” Then, the coup failed — and Flynn Intel Group won a lucrative contract with allies of the Erdogan regime. On Election Day, Flynn wrote an op-ed calling for Gülen’s extradition. Months later, as the incoming national security adviser, he was allegedly considering extraditing the Pennsylvania resident himself, with the aid of his son.

Political guru Paul Manafort took at least 18 trips to Moscow and was in frequent contact with Vladimir Putin’s allies for nearly a decade as a consultant in Russia and Ukraine for oligarchs and pro-Kremlin parties.

Even after the February 2014 fall of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, who won office with the help of a Manafort-engineered image makeover, the American consultant flew to Kiev another 19 times over the next 20 months while working for the smaller, pro-Russian Opposition Bloc party. Manafort went so far as to suggest the party take an anti-NATO stance, an Oppo Bloc architect has said. A key ally of that party leader, oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, was identified by an earlier Ukrainian president as a former Russian intelligence agent, “100 percent.”

Rather than mount some kind of defense against these revelations, the president is currently engaged in race-baiting and excusing pedophilia and child molestation. Trump’s dirty bag of tricks has proven remarkably, shockingly effective in the political sphere, but it seems wholly inadequate for his present legal challenges.

Yet, in the end, impeachment is a political matter and he’ll need to retain his political support to survive. That might make his behavior and the behavior of his son seem more rational, but it’s certainly not helping in the short term. The president and vice-president are the only ones who have some kind of built-in immunity from immediate criminal prosecution. Donald Trump Jr.’s legal problems can’t be shielded by a partisan Congress any more than Michael Flynn Jr.’s problems can.

I think, too, that Trump is making a mistake if he thinks he can pardon his way out of this mess. Firing Robert Mueller would be difficult and involve mass resignations and a revolt from law enforcement and the intelligence community.  It wouldn’t end the investigation necessarily, either, or make it possible to govern going forward.  Trump may attempt to do these things, especially because his son and son-in-law seem to be in real jeopardy, but that’s the kind of thing that works at the end of a presidency rather than the beginning.

In the end, Nixon tried to wall off the Watergate conspiracy and might have succeeded if it hadn’t been for those dastardly tape recordings. But it’s easier to fire Haldeman and Erlichmann than the father of your grandkids. Trump has no way of plausibly distancing himself and the people he needs to throw under the bus are too close to him.

Still, Trump will eventually need to say that he was a victim of his aides and advisers, and that requires some kind of pivot. He hasn’t pivoted, yet, and so his strategy makes little sense. He and his son are following it because they’re in a trap and it’s the only way they’ve ever known to fight.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.