Deep within the 49 paragraphs the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker needed to summarize President Donald Trump’s mounting legal woes, the reporters briefly summarized the White House’s communications strategy ahead of what promises to be a period of crisis. The “14 administration officials, presidential confidants and allies” with whom they spoke painted a portrait of a White House on autopilot. There is no “war room,” no rapid response strategy, and no one to stop the president from personally weighing in on the day to day, often to his detriment. Most damning, the West Wing seems to be counting on Trump’s core supporters’ maintaining their present indifference to the president’s shaky legal position. It’s what one official called the “shrugged shoulders” approach and, while it might be insulting, it has worked so far.
But betting on partisan rationalizations to save the president is a risky gamble, in part because it cedes the initiative to those investigating Trump and his associates. And at the moment, they have all the momentum.
On Friday, the Special Counsel’s Office and the Southern District of New York released a series of sentencing memos for Trump associates—his 2016 campaign chairman and longtime personal attorney, respectively—all of which suggest that Trump, personally, is in real peril. The SDNY’s memo about Michael Cohen is particularly damning, in part, because it alleges that Cohen engaged in felony campaign-finance violations “in coordination with and at the direction of” then-candidate Trump. Some have even noted that Trump could be indicted for allegedly defrauding voters and donors in 2016 if he loses re-election and leaves office before the statute of limitations on campaign-finance violations expires.
The president’s shrugging defenders may dismiss this shocking revelation as the work of overzealous or partisan prosecutors—work that has nothing to do with the allegation that Trump supposedly “colluded” with Russian agents to undermine the integrity of the election. Indeed, what SDNY’s prosecutors have alleged is a distinct effort to undermine the integrity of the election entirely separate from the one involving Moscow, but that doesn’t mean anyone has forgotten about the Russia probe.
As National Review’s David French astutely observes, a separate memo on Cohen’s case from the Special Counsel notes that Trump’s former attorney misled congressional investigators in a “deliberate and premeditated” deception about the scope of the Trump organization’s efforts to secure a commercial real-estate deal in Moscow during the campaign—a deal that included sweeteners for the Russian president and his regime. That effort continued virtually until the eve of the Republican presidential nominating convention and, as French notes, Cohen submitted the record of these mendacities to Congress in writing, potentially implicating administration officials who may have vetted them.
Additionally, as Robert Mueller’s office revealed, Cohen was approached in November of 2015 by a Russian national who claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Kremlin offering “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level” to the Trump campaign. This was just one of the estimated 14 individuals with established or deniable links to the Russian government who came into contact with Trump campaign officials or associates throughout the 2016 election cycle. Robert Mueller’s office has so far indicted 12 Russian military and intelligence officials implicated in the release of information secured as a result of the infiltration of the Democratic National Committee’s servers and laundering of that information through Wikileaks. Wikileaks was in contact with Trump associates Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi, both of whom were in contact with Trump during the campaign and who have told associates they expect to be indicted by Mueller’s investigation.
If Trump and company are hoping that Democratic lawmakers overreact to these disturbing revelations, they have so far been disappointed. Democrats, including the likely next House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the committee that would oversee impeachment proceedings, have conspicuously refused to speculate about the president’s complicity in impeachable offenses. Democratic leaders have prioritized deference to their party’s newly elected members from swing districts over their base voters and donors who want to see Trump bleed, and that discipline should concern Republicans. Right now, it is Donald Trump’s own Justice Department that is methodically making the case against him, and the last thing Democrats want to do is intervene in that process.
With a few exceptions, the president’s phalanx of reliable shruggers have responded to this weekend’s series of damning revelations with muted anxiety. That is a worrying sign for the White House that their communications strategy is off the rails. Gone is the dubious triumphalism about how the latest sentencing memo, plea agreement, and indictment out of the Special Counsel’s office exculpate the president. Gone is the certitude that the officials investigating the Trump campaign are off the president’s scent. The president himself led the charge on Friday night in the effort to rally his defenders, but few politicians and media professionals interested in preserving their reputations in anticipation of a post-Trump era followed his lead.
In the past, the president’s most enthusiastic defenders had tended to get ahead of this investigation. They postured as being vindicated when the latest Special Counsel’s office filing failed to implicate the president, only to be humiliated when the next one did. They sneered at Trump’s critics when two weeks elapsed without any new information related to the “collusion” probe, only to eat their words when Mueller advanced that ball a week later. In the 72 hours that elapsed since Friday, Trump’s defenders have opted only to warn Democrats not to overplay their hand. That should worry the White House most of all.