A breakdown of the latest New York Times Trump interview.

The Law Is Irrelevant to Donald Trump

The Law Is Irrelevant to Donald Trump

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 20 2017 11:33 AM

The Law Is Irrelevant to Donald Trump

This has never been clearer than in his latest New York Times interview.

US President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, in an interview with the New York Times, President Trump attacked everyone involved in the Russia investigation: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, former FBI Director James Comey, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It’s one of those tirades that tell you more about the man flinging the insults than about the people he’s insulting.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Trump makes several claims that invite investigative scrutiny: for example, that he never “made money from Russia” or did “a deal in Russia” and that he didn’t “shoo other people out of the room” before talking to Comey in the Oval Office on Feb. 14. But what comes across most is that Trump doesn’t seem to consider, understand, or care about anything that was written or said by others before he sat down to be interviewed. To Trump, the truth is just what he says in that moment, and the law is irrelevant. Here’s a breakdown:

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1. The Sessions recusal. Trump begins by complaining that Sessions should have told him, prior to being appointed, that he would “recuse himself.” Trump doesn’t specify what the recusal entails, but he says that if Sessions had warned him, Trump would have picked somebody else for the job. At one point, Trump refers to a confirmation hearing at which Sessions falsely denied he had met with any Russians. Trump implies that this is why Sessions recused himself.

These statements completely trample Sessions’ account of the recusal, which presumably can be backed up by the Justice Department lawyers who worked on it with Sessions. In sworn testimony before the Senate on June 13, Sessions denied that he recused himself because of what he said at his hearing. He testified that he recused himself from matters related to the 2016 campaign simply because he was an adviser to Trump in that campaign. Sessions also denied that the recusal bars him from doing most of his job—including his decision, on May 9, to give Trump a letter of recommendation to fire Comey, who was investigating whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia.

Trump’s remarks to the Times indicate that he either didn’t watch, read about, absorb, believe, or care what Sessions told Congress. The president seems baffled that a man who served in a campaign would recuse himself from supervising an investigation of that campaign. Trump also implies that the recusal has blocked Sessions from doing what Trump wants most: maintaining control of the Russia investigation. Trump doesn’t care about legal principles or distinctions. All he cares about is what might hurt him.

2. The Rosenstein memo. Trump says Rosenstein, who assumed supervision of the investigation after Sessions recused himself—and who subsequently appointed Mueller to run the investigation—has a “conflict of interest,” because on May 9, Rosenstein gave Trump a memo criticizing Comey, which Trump used to fire the FBI director. The memo directly opposes what Trump has asserted about Hillary Clinton (Trump wanted her locked up; Rosenstein says Comey persecuted her), but Trump doesn’t bother to square his account with the deputy AG’s. And while Trump doesn’t think Sessions had too much of a conflict of interest to warrant his recusal, the president simultaneously uses the “conflict of interest” charge to attack Rosenstein—not for controlling the investigation but for handing it off to Mueller. Everything Trump says in the interview is an attempt to steamroll legal safeguards and regain political control of the inquiry.

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3. The Mueller interview. Trump expresses dismay that Rosenstein appointed Mueller on May 17, just a day after Mueller—accompanied by Rosenstein, if I’m reading Trump correctly—was interviewed in the Oval Office as a candidate to be the next FBI director. Trump says that Mueller “wanted the job” and that they “had a wonderful meeting.” But afterward, according to Trump, “He leaves the office. Rosenstein leaves the office. The next day, he is appointed special counsel. I said, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ Talk about conflicts.”

There’s an obvious reason why Rosenstein appointed Mueller on May 17: because on May 16, the Times reported that Comey, in a memo, had documented pressure from Trump to go easy on Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who had lied about conversations with Russia. Trump doesn’t mention this reason. Nor does he seem to care that the conflict of interest he’s attributing to Mueller is based on a job interview that, by Trump’s account, suggests good relations between Mueller and Trump. If Clinton had been president and had reported such a job interview with Mueller, Trump would have denounced Mueller as her lackey. In this way, Trump’s recollections confound the right-wing portrayal of Mueller as hopelessly biased toward Comey. Trump simply can’t fathom that Mueller, after such a nice meeting, would take a job that Trump sees as disloyal.

4. The Comey memos. Trump charges that Comey “illegally leaked” his memo about Flynn to the Times. Trump says of the memo: “It looks like it’s classified and all that stuff.” The intermediary through whom Comey leaked the memo, law professor Daniel Richman, says the memo wasn’t classified at the time. Politico’s sources say it may have been “retroactively classified,” which could be a way of burying it. But what’s odd here is Trump’s allegation that it “looks like” the memo is classified. As president, he can find out what’s classified any time he likes. Why, instead, does he talk about how the situation “looks” and “all that stuff”? Because Trump doesn’t care about classification or national security. He just wants to smear Comey.

5. The Don Jr. emails. The Times asks Trump about the secret June 2016 meeting between Russian representatives, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. Don Jr. accepted the meeting based on an email—which he forwarded to Kushner and Manafort—that said a “Russian government attorney” would bring the campaign “sensitive information” against Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Times reporter Peter Baker asks the president: “Did that email concern you? That the Russian government was trying something to compromise—”

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Trump replies: “You know, Peter, I didn’t look into it very closely, to be honest with you. I just heard there was an email requesting a meeting or something—yeah, requesting a meeting. That they have information on Hillary Clinton. And I said—I mean, this was standard political stuff. … It’s a very unimportant—sounded like a very unimportant meeting.”

When Trump says he “just heard there was an email” and “didn’t look into it very closely,” he’s not talking about a year ago. He’s talking about the eight days since the emails were splashed all over the media, including Fox News. Many Republicans are alarmed to discover that contrary to their denials of collusion, the Trump campaign welcomed an explicit offer of secret Russian aid in the election. But Trump isn’t. He calls the meeting unimportant and implies that he hasn’t even bothered to read the email. Either he’s lying, or he’s telling the truth. I’m not sure which is worse.

For Republicans who can no longer defend Trump against charges of collusion and obstruction of justice, Trump’s obtuseness to facts, laws, and morals has become, bizarrely, a mitigating defense. They suggest, in effect, that he’s too incompetent to face charges. I’ll leave that to the courts. What’s clear is that such a man can’t preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. There’s a remedy for that. With every interview, Trump is begging for it.

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