The mind-shattering nature of Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016 makes it easy to forget that right up until the end, no one – least of all Donald Trump – expected he was actually going to win.
But that explains so much of what we’re seeing play out in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Trump never anticipated the kind of scrutiny he would get as president. During the campaign, he bobbed and weaved and distracted and made for such great television – and seemed like such a clown to most of the establishment media — that he didn’t even get the amount of journalistic scrutiny you would expect of a major presidential candidate.
He was entirely unprepared for the kind of digging into his past business practices that he would encounter as president. And he sure as hell wasn’t prepared for Robert Mueller.
Michael Wolff wrote in Fire and Fury (excerpted in New York Magazine) about Trump’s true intentions:
His ultimate goal, after all, had never been to win. “I can be the most famous man in the world,” he had told his aide Sam Nunberg at the outset of the race. His longtime friend Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, liked to say that if you want a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumors about a Trump network. It was a great future. He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities.
He did not run a serious campaign. He did not have serious advisers. He surrounded himself with cranks and crooks. He effectively had no transition plan. He refused to release his tax returns. He kept control of his company – and kept making deals.
Getting elected was a disaster all around.
Trump offered reporters a rare insight into his thinking this morning, in response to questions about his former lawyer Michael Cohen’s admission that he and Trump engaged in negotiations to build a tower in Moscow well into the campaign, contrary to their prior public statements.
“There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” he asked.
“My focus was running for president,” he said. “But when I run for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business. I was doing a lot of different things when I was running. After I won, obviously I don’t do business, from January 20… which is the following year. But more importantly, I ran a business.”
More importantly, he ran a business. Right up until Inauguration Day.
As for the Moscow deal, Trump said: “I decided not to do it. The primary reason — there could have been other reasons – but the primary reason, it was very simple, is I was focused on running for president. There would be nothing wrong if I did do it….
“I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business — a lot of different things — during the campaign.”
And keep in mind that while we are trying to figure out what Mueller has discovered, there’s one person who knows full well what he’s likely to dig up, and that’s Donald Trump.
Some of his prior misconduct may have seemed like ancient history. But he knew that right up to and even during the campaign, he had made any number of shady deals with foreign banks, foreign oligarchs and foreign governments. Some of his corruption was even in plain sight: his entire luxury real-estate business was fueled by money-laundering. He knew that once he became president, his various business partners — quite possibly including Russian oligarchs and Vladimir Putin himself — had leverage over him.
And then of course there’s the question of whether he knew about Russian interference in the election.
So imagine what is going through his mind right now. Ever since his election, he has feared and anticipated greater scrutiny of his past. When Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017, Trump realized he faced an existential threat. The last 18 months have been a protracted period of waiting for the boom to drop.
As priorities go, governing is a distant second. Survival is job one.
The most obvious “tell” is Trump’s obsession with demonizing the news media and maligning Mueller and his team – trying to discredit the messenger
There are signs here and there of how Trump’s world will fall apart. Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, pled guilty in August to making illegal payments to Trump’s mistresses — a crime in which Trump was an unindicted co-conspirator. The latest news is that Cohen has evidently confirmed that Trump was trying to make deals in Russia well into his campaign.
No one can say precisely what will happen next, or when. But at some point, Mueller will complete his investigation and his findings will make their way to the House Judiciary Committee. As I wrote yesterday, it’s essential that members of Congress declare – right now – what they consider an impeachable offense, so they can’t wriggle away when Mueller spills.
The gravest concern is that Trump will find some new way to distract the media and the nation from his undoing. As psychoanalyst Justin Frank, author of Trump on the Couch, puts it, terrifyingly: “Which prospect is likely more frightening to Donald Trump: revealing his tax returns or starting a nuclear war?”
It’s just a matter of time — weeks, months, or even possibly years — before Act III begins. It will be Trump’s downfall. The only question is what he’ll take down with him.
[This story has been updated with quotes from Trump since its initial publication.]