The heat is turning up on Donald Trump this week, as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is making news every day, giving a strong impression that justice circles ever closer to Trump himself. Just this week, Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and professional conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi saw their plea agreements go up in smoke, while Corsi shared emails with the press that seemed to implicate both him and dirty trickster Roger Stone in the Russia/WikiLeaks email hacking conspiracy. On Thursday morning, Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, appeared in a Manhattan courthouse to offer a guilty plea for lying to Congress, the first of several such as Cohen responds to charges by Mueller.
As the walls close in around the president this week, there's been a detectable shift in the way that Trump and his protectors in both the right-wing media and the Republican Party have defended him. The pretense of innocence is slipping away and in its place is rising a new excuse: Donald Trump and his associates are and should be above the law.
Trump's view of this has been evident since he allegedly told then-FBI director James Comey, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go," with regards to the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (One of the many people who has pled guilty in this alleged "witch hunt.") But after Trump fired Comey when the latter refused to obstruct justice for him — and then the president admitted as much to NBC News — there has been some effort by Trump, Republicans and conservative media to pretend to care about equality of justice.
This pretense of respect for rule of law is quickly eroding as it becomes likelier that Trump could be in real trouble. While Trump still occasionally throws the word "innocent" around, he's been increasingly bold about implying that he and his associates simply cannot be held accountable to the same rules as everyone else.
After Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about his efforts to develop a Trump Tower project in Moscow -- which apparently extended well into the 2016 campaign -- Trump called Cohen "weak" and made some lame claims that Cohen is lying. But then he moved onto his real argument: "When I run for President, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business."
As Kate Rige of Talking Points Memo notes, this is a shift in Trump's excuses. In the past, Trump "vociferously claimed that he had no business ties with Russia that would compromise him." Now he's asserting that he was allowed to do as he wished in his private affairs, a bold claim considering the lengths he's gone to hide his business ties to Russian interests.
In an interview with the New York Post on Wednesday, Trump cavalierly suggested that he could simply pardon Manafort, saying, "Why would I take it off the table?" He did not even bother to claim that such a pardon would be about justice, or indeed anything except protecting himself.
Instead, Trump whined that "this flipping stuff is terrible." Sure, he tried to cover himself by saying that anyone who's "flipping" on him is lying, but that cover story makes even less sense with Mueller tearing up plea deals because his "cooperating witnesses" allegedly lied to him. Instead, what we're left with is Trump raging about how he shouldn't have to deal with law enforcement using standard methods to cultivate witnesses to testify against a likely criminal conspirator — and about how he longs to abuse his pardon power in order to escape justice.
Thursday morning's Twitter tirade was in the same vein: Perfunctory claims of innocence papered over the real argument, which is that Trump and his comrades shouldn't be held accountable to the same rules as everyone else. Trump made up a random number, claiming the investigation has cost $40 million, claiming it has "shattered so many innocent lives" and offering instead that the prosecutor should be investigating "subversive, crimes that were committed by Crooked Hillary Clinton and the Democrats."
It's important to look past Trump's sprinkled claims of innocence and towards the real argument he's making: Justice Department investigations should not be geared toward a truthful accounting of facts and upholding the rule of law, but should be about advancing the political goals of Trump himself. The president is endlessly sympathetic about the lives "shattered" when they are those of his allies, no matter how much evidence Mueller racks up against them.
Meanwhile, while there is no evidence of any crimes committed by Hillary Clinton or any other major Democrats — on the contrary, Clinton and her fellow Democrats were the victims of the crimes Mueller is investigating — Trump longs to use the justice system to invent imaginary crimes and punish them. Hand-waving about the "witch hunt" aside, this is the president of the United States calling for the rule of law to be gutted and for law enforcement to reoriented toward dismantling democratic norms on his behalf.
Firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him with a hack like Matthew Whitaker was, of course, a huge step forward in Trump's campaign to assert that he's above the law. This week demonstrated that Republican politicians and right-wing media are going all in on backing that play.
Wednesday, Fox News host and prime Trump apologist Tucker Carlson helped push things along by taking a sarcastic, dismissive tone, decrying Mueller's team for "threatening elderly men with life in prison" and saying that "the whole thing is a grotesque joke." This rhetoric is special pleading in its rawest form, framing these men — by virtue of age and by implication, of status — as less answerable for their crimes than other Americans.
Sean Hannity, meanwhile, asked on his radio show, "Is it a crime that they hear that maybe WikiLeaks has information that's damning to Hillary?" and then argued that every single member of Congress would have done the same. This argument is noteworthy because it assumes that the conspiracy happened and that Trump's team — and possibly Trump himself — is guilty of it. The shift is now towards arguing that the guilty should face no consequences.
Meanwhile, the reaction of Senate Republicans to Sen. Jeff Flake's efforts to pass a bill protecting Mueller's investigation suggests that the party is fully on board with the above-the-law argument. Even after the previously toothless Flake finally started exerting real pressure, by raising obstacles to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's court-packing efforts, McConnell flatly refused to do anything to protect Mueller.
“This is a solution in search of a problem, the president is not going to fire Robert Mueller," McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
This lie is so transparent that it's likely McConnell didn't expect a single soul to buy it. Trump has been publicly ranting about the need to shut down Mueller's investigation on the regular. He made a huge move in that direction by replacing Sessions with a thoroughly unqualified loyalist hack. McConnell's blatant lie should be understood what it is: A very public demonstration of power. McConnell is flexing here, showing off that he can tell obvious falsehoods in public and no one can do anything about it.
For the U.S. Senate's majority leader to thumb his nose at the very idea of public accountability only helps bolster Donald Trump's larger case: That he simply isn't beholden to the same rules and laws as other people.
The question remains how far Trump, with his support from Republicans and conservative media, can get in acting like the law simply doesn't apply to him or his cadre of loyalists. The grim reality is, as McConnell's behavior shows, that the rule of law means nothing if powerful people are able to dismantle it. But with Mueller moving quickly — hopefully faster than Matt Whitaker can catch up with — and Democrats retaking the House of Representatives in a few weeks, there's at least a glimmer of hope that Trump's grotesque power play might soon come to an end.