Robert Mueller in the Oval Office, 2012EXPAND
Robert Mueller in the Oval Office, 2012
The White House

In 2019, Mueller's Silence So Far on Collusion May Suddenly Make Sense

This won’t take a minute, I promise. I am writing on New Year’s Eve day, trying to peer ahead. I have this one question:

Why wouldn’t President Donald Trump and his supporters interpret special counsel Robert Mueller’s relative silence on collusion in exactly the opposite way they have been interpreting it so far? Rather than as proof that Mueller doesn’t have anything on collusion, why shouldn’t Mueller’s actions so far be taken as a strong indication that he may?

Let me put it another way. If Mueller is gearing up a case alleging the Trump campaign colluded with Russia — either political collusion or the much more perilous kind of collusion for Trump and his family, criminal collusion for financial gain —  why would Mueller open that curtain even a crack before he is ready to bring down the hammer? Isn’t that precisely the moment Trump shuts Mueller down?

Maybe for the sake of argument or just for grins and knowing it will be a tricky psychological experiment, you and I should try to take Trump at his word. He says Mueller has no collusion. Let’s assume that’s what Trump truly believes. Isn’t that exactly what Mueller wants him to believe?

The indictments, plea deals, convictions and agreements flowing from the Mueller probe so far are beginning to look like the tail, the ears, the hooves and the very long proboscis of a huge thick-hided something or other that makes trumpeting sounds, dear Lord forgive me for that awful pun. At what point should the president stop saying, “No elephant”? When does he hear the click and figure he’s the elephant?

And wouldn’t Mueller see all of that coming? We tend to think of Mueller as a former director of the FBI, a cop. Not that he wasn’t or that being a former cop slows him down. But his real formative experiences probably were more as an assistant U.S. attorney in Northern California, Massachusetts and Washington, where he headed the Justice Department’s criminal division prosecuting Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the Gambino crime family.

Mueller knows the moves. He knows how to hunt. If he can help it, he’s not going to break cover early.

Trump has a few people near him — or who give the appearance of being near him — who ought to know the moves almost as well as Mueller. The most notable is Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Now working for Trump, why wouldn’t Giuliani be telling the president not to take comfort in Mueller’s dainty avoidance of anything like a direct accusation of collusion?

Maybe he is. Or not. While Giuliani basks in the limelight of his association with the president of the United States, The New York Times reported Dec. 12 that Giuliani’s security firm is pursuing powerful, lucrative clients in Bahrain, Republic of the Congo and Latin America.

So it’s also possible that Trump, like a lot of guys with the type of friends he has, is being pilfered on his way down the tubes. That’s another dynamic Mueller would have seen before, always with a certain kind of furious explosion to be expected at the end of a long, dirty fuse.

If we take Trump at his word — he really believes Mueller has nothing on collusion —– and if Mueller lifts the blinds even a little bit, lets Trump glimpse even a little real ammo, what would Trump’s reaction be?

Since we’re just shooting the breeze here anyway, allow me to rephrase that. What would your reaction be? I’m serious. Put yourself in Trump’s shoes.

Something pops out of an indictment. Maybe the press doesn’t quite catch it, but a heads-up lawyer who has your interests at heart (possibly not Giuliani) does spot it. She comes to you and says this:

“This clause in this document from Mueller indicates he’s gone deep into your business affairs. We think he may have evidence that could put members of your family in peril of prison and might even threaten you personally.”

Here’s the difference. Because you are wearing Trump’s wondrous bespoke shoes, not your own, you possess a power of which you personally could not otherwise possibly dream. You can fire Mueller. You can stop him dead in his tracks.

After personally prosecuting everybody from Gambino family crime boss John Gotti to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, it's not as if Special Counsel Robert Mueller doesn't have some chops by now.
After personally prosecuting everybody from Gambino family crime boss John Gotti to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, it's not as if Special Counsel Robert Mueller doesn't have some chops by now.
(L-R) FBI mugshot (John Gotti), U.S. Marshall's Office Miami (Manuel Noriega), flicker-face-yess (Donald Trump)

What do you know about Mueller, beyond all the zany partisan bluster about him? You know he’s a battle-tested Marine. He’s a straight arrow from boyhood. If Mueller gets an order telling him to deep-six his work product and step the hell down, that’s exactly what he will do. And keep his mouth shut. And never ever write a book.

So if you strongly suspect he has evidence of collusion and you know allowing him to continue will put your family in danger of prison, why wouldn’t you exercise your power to stop him?

Would there be political blowback? Sure. Terrible political blowback. But you know what? Even the worst political blowback is a Sunday-school picnic next to prison. So if you were in Trump’s shoes, wouldn’t you stop Mueller the moment you caught a good glimpse of evidence of collusion on his desk? Then you can take your chances on blowback.

More to the point, should we not all assume that Mueller sees all of this ahead and that’s precisely why the indictments and the deals so far have stepped so gingerly around the elephant?

And then back to my original question. Why wouldn’t Trump see it coming? Because he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t see it for all the same reasons a Manuel Noriega or a John Gotti wouldn’t see the handwriting before it was too late — because the same defects of character that make people crooks also deny them the ability to see the truth.

So Trump will not see Mueller coming on collusion until it’s too late, unless Mueller screws up and tips his hand. Only 2019 knows for sure how that will turn out. I know which way I’m betting.

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