The New York Times on Tuesday published a massive exposé on President Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts to subvert, deflect, and in some cases outright end the various investigations into his alleged criminal misdeeds. It’s a compelling if exhausting read, which goes to great lengths to show how Trump—increasingly frustrated by the prospect of actually facing serious consequences for his actions—has spent the past two years working to manipulate the levers of the criminal justice system to suit his own needs.
And yet there’s an undeniable subtext in the Times’ reporting: That Trump’s worst, most authoritarian inclinations are frequently stymied by the fact that those around him simply ignore his more outlandish directives.
Here’s a good example, in which the president asked then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to reinstate U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey S. Berman—perceived by Trump to be a friend—to oversee the SDNY’s investigation into the president’s businesses, after Berman had recused himself (emphasis mine throughout).
He made the call to Mr. Whitaker to see if he could put Mr. Berman in charge of the New York investigation. The inquiry is run by Robert Khuzami, a career prosecutor who took over after Mr. Berman, whom Mr. Trump appointed, recused himself because of a routine conflict of interest.
What exactly Mr. Whitaker did after the call is unclear, but there is no evidence that he took any direct steps to intervene in the Manhattan investigation. He did, however, tell some associates at the Justice Department that the prosecutors in New York required “adult supervision.”
Lip-service to “adult supervision” notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem like Whittaker did, well, anything! As the Times notes elsewhere in their report:
The president soon soured on Mr. Whitaker, as he often does with his aides, and complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.
Here’s another example, this time dealing with Whitaker’s predecessor and frequent Trump punching bag, Jeff Sessions, who incurred the president’s wrath by recusing himself from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Privately, [Trump] tried to remove Mr. Sessions — he said he wanted an attorney general who would protect him — but didn’t fire him, in part because White House aides dodged the president’s orders to demand his resignation.
It gets better.
Mr. Trump even called his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, over the Fourth of July weekend to ask him to pressure Mr. Sessions to resign. Mr. Lewandowski was noncommittal and never acted on the request.
Nothing says “strong-willed leader” quite like calling up a dude who doesn’t work for you anymore, asking him to do you a solid (pressuring the top law enforcement official in the country to resign), and getting totally ignored.
Of course, as the Times laboriously points out, Trump has found plenty of other ways to subvert the natural course of justice in his favor, such as enlisting congressional loyalists and demented legal “experts” to simply discredit that which he couldn’t just wish away. Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that we’ve gotten to the point where Trump’s years-long efforts to warp the criminal justice system in his favor aren’t nearly as successful as he’d like—all because some of his closest confidants have been able to get away with acting like they can’t hear him.