Every week, until the week that follows, turns out to be the worst week in the worst presidency in American history. Last week, it was bad enough that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates were indicted for “conspiracy against the United States.” The unveiled guilty plea of campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI was an even more serious blow.
Then there were Trump's meetings with Vladimir Putin and waffling on whether he believed the U.S. intelligence conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, or Putin's denials. And that revived questions about which side Trump is on. Back home this week, he'll have to contend with reporting that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his son were involved in a bizarre and lucrative kidnapping plot.
Manafort, Gates and Flynn all know a lot. Will one of them talk, if not to save themselves but to spare their dear ones? Flynn’s son is not the only pressure point. Gates has children who would not enjoy visiting him in prison. Manafort's indictment notes that his “extended family” was a beneficiary of his multimillion dollar malefactions. His wife of 40 years, Kathleen, an attorney, may also be in deep; she shows up as the initial purchaser on many of the properties allegedly purchased with laundered funds.
The squeeze is on and Trump is left with four choices, all of them bad.
First, he could fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Various members of Congress have introduced legislation to block such a move. But even without congressional action, this course is fraught. Under existing law, grounds for removal by the attorney general are limited to “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. His deputy Rod Rosenstein would have to do the deed. If he refuses and Trump executes a Nixon-style Saturday night massacre of Justice Department officials, it almost certainly would end, as it did for Richard Nixon, in impeachment proceedings.
A blanket pardon might be a slightly better choice. The president’s pardon power, as we were reminded with Trump’s August pardon of sheriff Joe Arpaio, is near absolute. Yet with almost every senior member of the Trump campaign potentially liable for criminal prosecution — including members of Trump’s own immediate family, like Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner — the pardon blanket would have to be larger than king size. As conservative Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru has observed, such a move “would make the controversies already swirling around Trump burn hotter” and would “lead to more and louder calls for impeachment. And they should.”
A third course is to let nature take its course. This, evidently, is the legal advice Trump has been getting. Cooperate forthrightly with the special counsel, is what the lawyers have said. Provide all the documents Mueller asks for. Tell the truth.
Without question, this would be the best strategy for bringing the Russia investigation to a swift end. But there is one caveat that is all important. Trump’s lawyers do not know what they do not know. Trump does know.
Even if Trump’s conduct of the campaign turns out to be purer than Caesar’s wife, he has a decade or more of shady business deals to worry about. Trump never expected to become president and never expected his past practices would fall under the microscopic legal scrutiny to which Mueller’s crack team is now subjecting them. An inveterate and reflexive liar, he is unlikely to tell truths that would destroy his presidency bigly.
Trump’s last, best option is to initiate a diversion. Not a minor diversion like a provocative tweet, but a major diversion, like a foreign policy crisis, possibly even a war.
The beauty of this approach is how easy it would be to get it going and how publicly justifiable it might be. Trump did in fact inherit, in North Korea, an unresolvable and increasingly urgent national security dilemma. Kim Jong Un’s Hermit Kingdom already has a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community estimates it will soon have the capability to mount them on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike any city in the United States.
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"We cannot allow this dictatorship to threaten our nation or our allies with unimaginable loss of life," says Trump. "We will do what we must do to prevent that from happening." But North Korea shows no signs that it will slow let alone stop its nuclear weapons program.
Trump need not launch a preemptive strike. Having called North Korea's leader "short and fat," he can continue to ratchet up rhetoric that is already over the top. Would a United States on the precipice of war allow its president to be paralyzed by a criminal investigation? Would it act to remove him from office, creating a vacuum of power, at a moment of maximum danger?
Courting war in Asia would be a gamble. But if all other choices before Trump lead to almost certain downfall, at least this offers a chance. He can roll the dice and bait "Little Rocket Man" to the breaking point. Godspeed to the Mueller investigation, for avoiding catastrophe is what's at stake.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld
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