President Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Asha Rangappa is a former FBI counterintelligence officer who now lectures at Yale University. She’s written a piece for Politico that explores some fairly obvious points about the damage that can be done to our governmental institutions when we elect someone without good moral character. Her main point is that it’s a very bad thing when, due to the president’s personal flaws, the courts have to get involved in defining and limiting his or her power. A secondary point is that when a president is aggressively investigated by his or her own executive branch’s prosecutors, it divides the country. The president’s supporters lose faith in federal law enforcement.

Not to be mean, but there’s not much more content than this to Rangappa’s piece, which is unfortunate considering the relevancy of her background. The main problem is that she tiptoes around the central problem in our current situation. It’s fine to lament that the nation elected a man with poor moral character which has now produced predictably bad results for the nation––results that are likely to get worse and worse with each passing day. But this is where we are, and the question of whether Donald Trump will willingly submit to an interview from Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel’s office doesn’t hinge on anything too complicated.

The president cannot do an interview with Robert Mueller because he isn’t sane.

I don’t need to sit down with Trump and do a psychological evaluation to know that he has highly peculiar traits, among which is an inability to cleanly divide fact from fiction.  Perhaps he knew that he was peddling bullshit all along when he hyped the birth certificate “controversy” with President Obama. Perhaps he knows that he’s gaslighting people when he says that he’s been tougher on Russia that Obama ever was.  Or maybe one part of his brain knows this, at least initially, and then that part of his brain becomes subsumed by another part of his brain that believe its own lies. What does Trump think about the size of his inaugural crowd? Has he convinced himself that he really, truly never once expressed doubt that the Russians interfered in our election?

If he were more cunning and in control of his own thoughts, it might be possible for him to talk to prosecutors and stick to the truth. This would be highly embarrassing for him because he’d have to admit to telling hundreds of lies that pertain to the Russia investigation. For just one example, he’d have to argue that he of course crafted a  completely dishonest account of the purpose of the Trump Tower meeting his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had with the Russians, but that it’s his right to lie to the people. He’d have to argue that he knew that this would eventually be exposed as a lie when the relevant emails and telephone records were turned over, and that even though he discussed the prospects of keeping those records hidden from the Special Counsel’s office, that became irrelevant when the documents were procured by other means.

Trump’s not capable of walking that kind of tightrope. He’s too reluctant to admit his own dishonesty. He’s too insecure to allow himself to be humbled this way. And he comes to believe many things that simply aren’t true, which makes it impossible to keep his balance when he’s trying to quarantine his political lies off from his legal vulnerabilities.

He’s bet everything on the hope that Robert Mueller cannot demonstrate the kind of coordination between his campaign and the Russians’ hacking and influence campaign that would warrant impeachment and removal from office. In the process, he’s already created a very threatening obstruction of justice case. If he’s going to survive, he can’t make things worse for himself by committing a hundred acts of perjury.

Like anyone else, the president cannot be compelled to incriminate himself. He won’t want to take the Fifth Amendment, since that would imply he is admitting to wrongdoing. That means that he’ll probably fight a grand jury subpoena in court even though he’s unlikely to win that case in the end. If he ever has to fall back on the Fifth Amendment, he’ll say that his tormentors are so hell-bent on proving something incriminating that they can’t be trusted. More likely, he’ll simply defy the Supreme Court and dare Congress to do anything about it.

In one sense, Trump will do these things because he doesn’t have respect for our institutions and actually benefits when the country is divided and distrusting of our institutions.  But in a much clearer sense, Trump will do these things because he simply cannot tell the truth even when he’s under oath and facing legal consequences if he lies. His lawyers know this and have effectively admitted as much. That’s why they want Mueller to submit written questions. With written questions, the lawyers can write the answers instead of the president.

Even that would be unlikely to work because Trump would never let his lawyers provide answers that are truthful admissions of all the lies he’s told.  This is all the more true because Trump actually has obstructed justice, and an honest account would make that clear.

Rangpappa says:

Electing someone to the presidency with bad moral character isn’t just a 4-year embarrassment. It’s also a constitutional risk, since there’s a good chance these individuals will have little regard for how their actions impact the legacy of the office they hold—especially if they find themselves in the crosshairs of an investigation, like Trump does now.

There’s no reason to dispute any of that, but Trump’s malfunctioning brain is a more immediate and consequential problem than his bad moral character. If Trump has any defense at all, it’s that he simply can’t distinguish between fact and fiction. At a root level, he’s so unconcerned about the distinction that he doesn’t know how to act as if it matters.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at