By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
For a man who insists he has done nothing wrong, President Trump sure acts as if he has something big to hide. President Trump‘s attempt to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, last June which he backed off only when the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, threatened to resign over it – is only the latest in a long string of firings and lies that establish an undeniable pattern:
The president of the United States has tried repeatedly to shut down an investigation into whether his campaign coordinated with Russian officials to help him win the 2016 election. Let’s review:
In January 2017, Mr. Trump asked James Comey, the F.B.I. director at the time, who was leading the Russia investigation, to pledge loyalty to him and to state publicly that Mr. Trump himself was not being investigated. Mr. Comey demurred on both counts.
In February, Mr. Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after public reports that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russian officials. (The White House had in fact been alerted to Mr. Flynn’s lies, and his vulnerability to blackmail, more than two weeks earlier.)
The next day, after an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Comey and other officials, Mr. Trump cleared the room and urged Mr. Comey to drop the investigation into Mr. Flynn.
In March, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, recused himself from any investigations related to the 2016 campaign, after it was reported that he had failed to disclose his own contacts with Russians during the campaign. Mr. Trump tried to block the recusal, believing that Mr. Sessions should protect him from the Russia investigation. When Mr. Sessions recused himself anyway, Mr. Trump was furious.
Later that month, Mr. Trump asked top intelligence officials to intervene and persuade Mr. Comey to drop the Russian investigation. He also asked them to publicly deny that there was evidence of collusion between his campaign and the Russians.
In May, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey. The White House first claimed that Mr. Comey had been fired for mishandling the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. But two days later, Mr. Trump admitted on national television that he had fired Mr. Comey in order to stop the Russia investigation.
In June, we know now, Mr. Trump tried to fire Mr. Mueller, who had been appointed to take over the investigation only weeks earlier. Mr. Trump has denied that he ever made such an attempt.
Mr. Trump may call this behavior “fighting back,” but the federal criminal code would almost surely call it obstructing justice — an offense that has led to the resignation of one president and the impeachment of another.
Maybe that’s why, on Friday morning, Mr. Trump took a different tack, dismissing the reports that he tried to fire Mr. Mueller as “fake news” — meaning, real news that makes him look bad. But even Sean Hannity, who would plunk down cash for the Brooklyn Bridge if Mr. Trump tried to sell it to him, eventually had to admit it was true. Other defenders of the president have argued it was no big deal. Hey, this happened seven months ago, and he didn’t even follow through!
But he did follow through with firing Mr. Comey. If there were any remaining doubt that he did so for an innocent reason, Thursday’s news snuffed it out. Mr. Trump’s claim that he wanted Mr. Mueller gone because of his supposed “conflicts of interest,” which included a claimed dispute long ago over fees at one of Mr. Trump’s golf clubs, is not worth taking seriously.
At least three important questions remain. First, why is this incident coming to light only now? Mr. Trump’s desire to get rid of the special counsel was reported months ago, as was his advisers’ efforts to talk him down from such a catastrophic move, but both the president and the White House have consistently denied taking any steps in that direction. Last August, Mr. Trump was asked by reporters whether he had considered firing Mr. Mueller. “I haven’t given it any thought,” he said.
Perhaps people close to the president are trying to ensure that when he testifies before Mr. Mueller, as he has said he would “love to” do, he doesn’t insist on his alternative facts and put himself at risk of a perjury charge. Or perhaps, as the investigation closes in on the White House, there is a growing fear that the president is liable to act rashly, especially as he is being goaded daily by congressional Republicans and the right-wing media machine. If this latest revelation serves only to provide Mr. Mueller with greater job protection, that’s a good thing.
Second, why the repeated lies by Mr. Trump and his associates about the contacts with Russian officials? Maybe they truly believed they did nothing illegal during the campaign and transition, but thought it would be embarrassing for the contacts to become public in light of the intelligence community’s finding that Russia attempted to interfere in the election. For this White House, though, mere public embarrassment has never seemed a source of chagrin.
This leads to the third and most pressing question of all: If Mr. Trump and his associates are truly innocent of any wrongdoing, what are they so afraid of?