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Rumors of War: Mueller and Trump Prepare for Battle

The tone and tenor of the Mueller investigation has changed dramatically.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, special counsel on the Russian investigation, leaves following a meeting with members of the US Senate Judiciary Committee at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on June 21, 2017.

Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan …

— Warren Zevon

The very first rule of any competent litigator is, “Never ask a question unless you already know the answer.” One assumes Robert Mueller is as competent a litigator as they come in public service. If that is the case, last week’s leak of some fourscore questions Mueller has for Trump would be enough to make anyone else in Trump’s position run up a tree and hide.

In other words, to use an idiom made famous in The Godfather, Mueller and Trump are “going to the mattresses”: They are preparing for war.

Yup. It’s on, and no one is ready for it. We’re all pretty beat up by now; the blinding, grinding havoc that is the Trump Syndicate’s passage through history has left its mark on us all, and not for the good. Those who have been shouting, “This is not normal!” are beginning to get a little hoarse. It was inevitable; friction makes a callus.

All that is about to change, because “normal” is about to take a long walk off a short pier. No one has ever witnessed anything like what is about to happen. Richard Nixon, once he finally saw the writing on the wall, had the decency to quit. Donald Trump is no Nixon, and the cataclysm squatting just over the horizon will be, to use a gentle euphemism, unique.

Consider the battlefield as it stands.

1. The Mueller Questions: Mueller’s questions for Trump contain a drumbeat of obstruction queries from beginning to end, and if Mueller already has the answers, he already has a case. He doesn’t need to prove collusion if he can prove obstruction, and it certainly appears the Trump administration has been going out of its way to obstruct the collusion investigation.

There are plenty of collusion questions included, of course, along with some subtle questions with sharp teeth about family relations and money-laundering to boot. Cohen, Kushner, Stone, Flynn, Manafort, Comey: They’re all in there. Legal logic dictates one must first plow through the alleged obstruction and discover its nature before taking on whatever the Trump Syndicate is trying to hide. If Mueller already knows the answers, Trump and his people have cause to be deeply, fearfully concerned.

2. Ty Cobb Out: Cobb, the lawyer with the Yosemite Sam moustache, has been abruptly shown the door. The administration tried to make it sound like a departure long expected, but the facts indicate Cobb got the here’s-your-hat-what’s-your-hurry because Trump wants a lawyer with a stronger taste for blood.

Enter new Trump attorney Emmet Flood, who once upon a time served as one of Bill Clinton’s impeachment lawyers. Mr. Flood is well versed in hand-to-hand political and legal combat. “He jousted with Congress and an independent counsel during the Clinton administration,” reports the New York Times. “As a White House lawyer during George W. Bush’s second term, he helped fend off congressional investigations into the firing of federal prosecutors. And in private practice, he represented former Vice President Dick Cheney.” That’s quite a client list right there.

Mr. Flood believes Cobb and the tattered remnants of Trump’s legal “team” have been far too conciliatory toward the special counsel’s investigation to date, and he means to change that. The odds of Trump agreeing to an interview with Mueller are now so slim, it would get thrown off the big board at the MGM Grand even with a sucker at every table.

Ain’t happening without a subpoena, and that subpoena will go all the way to the Supreme Court if issued. With Flood, everything from here on out will be a fight to the knife. To nick another line from The Godfather, Trump now has his wartime consigliere.

3. The Freedom Caucus Threatens Rosenstein with Impeachment: There have probably been stranger phenomena in politics than the House Freedom Caucus, but I can’t think of them right now. They are the Tea Party’s Alamo in Congress, the last bastion of that manufactured movement, and they still throw serious weight.

Their allegiances are as strange as their politics. It was the Freedom Caucus who blew up Trump’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and they were on the verge of wrecking his tax bill before they were placated. Yet their core supporters are also Trump’s seemingly uncrackable base, and they know where their bread is buttered.

Hence, this impeachment threat by the Caucus against DoJ Deputy Director Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation. Rosenstein will not fire Mueller, so Rosenstein must be removed. On its own, the Freedom Caucus impeachment threat against Rosenstein is some pretty weak whiskey; the rest of Congress wants no part of it. It could make for some serious political pressure, however, if combined with a frontal attack against Rosenstein by Trump himself.

4. A Trump Intervention and the Pincer Move: The basis for the Freedom Caucus’ impeachment threat is the fact that Rosenstein is refusing to do something the Justice Department has never, ever done before. A memo was drafted by the Justice Department outlining the scope of the Mueller investigation, the kind of boilerplate document done at the outset of every investigation it undertakes. The Caucus wants that memo, and its members are willing to impeach if they don’t get it.

The thing is, the Department of Justice has never turned over such a memo, because it can’t: It doesn’t turn over strategy memos to the people it is currently investigating, and it is currently investigating the president. Rosenstein has made it abundantly clear that the Caucus can go pound sand; Rosenstein is not going to destroy the separation of powers and basic common sense to please the politics of some congressional wrecking crew.

The whole thing gets far more dicey if Trump follows through on his sweaty-toothed threat to “get involved.” Taking to Twitter on Wednesday, he wrote, “A Rigged System — They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress. What are they afraid of? Why so much redacting? Why such unequal ‘justice?’ At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”

My handy Trump-to-English dictionary translates that to mean “I will fire Rosenstein,” even though all the flames of Hades will rise up to boil the marble tiles of the White House … maybe. Right? It’s always “Maybe” around here thanks to heroes like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. They say all the right things about Trump “paying a price” for firing the deputy director if he actually does so, but I trust that about as far as I can spit a yak.

If Trump decides to move on Rosenstein, an impeachment push by the Freedom Caucus could provide just enough political cover to withstand the firestorm. This pincer move would provide the Republican jellyfish hive in Congress an excuse to let Trump be Trump … which, in this case, would mean the end of the Mueller investigation, the breaking of the Justice Department to Trump’s will, and the final triumph of his Chaos Theory of Governing.

Ah, the endless possibilities of summer.

At this point, I’m still leaving Rudy, Stormy and the rest of that clown car off my main screen. It is entertaining as all get-out, don’t get me wrong — Giuliani’s arsonist rampage through Trump’s Cohen/Stormy legal strategy is the stuff political writers’ dreams are made of — and there are serious legal consequences for Trump if Cohen rolls on him, but the real business is what they’re not talking about on the television.

The Mueller questions, attorney Cobb getting exchanged for infighter Flood, the Freedom Caucus’ impeachment threat and the reality of Trump himself — they’re all coming together like a four-way train wreck happening at 5 miles per hour. That’s the show, and it’s just getting started.

There were dozens of oh-boy-here-we-go moments during Watergate that ultimately came to nothing before the deal finally went down. This may be one of those, but I don’t think so. The pitch is different, the timbre more brittle, and the crystal is rattling on the shelf. This feels like something Archie Cox would easily recognize. This feels like war, and because it involves all that is Donald Trump, we’ve never seen anything like it before.

Buckle up.