Day by day, the prosecutorial vise that is special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe into Russian interference in America’s 2016 election was depicted as tightening down upon Donald Trump’s presidency.
News cycle by news cycle, reporters and pundits speculated that Mueller’s long-awaited final report would soon be our next “BREAKING NEWS.” And with every turn of the screw, the pressure was felt most intensely by America’s Viewer-in-Chief. Trump was publicly portraying himself as the ultimate victim under siege. And for the past week, the president had appeared increasingly unmoored, in ways that privately concerned many of his Republican supporters.
By late Friday afternoon, when the Justice Department announced Mueller had given his final report to new Attorney General William Barr, Washington’s cognoscenti was clueless as to what Mueller had concluded about whether America’s 45th president had done anything wrong, let alone committed an impeachable offense.
But we all had seen stunning evidence of just how the months of viselike pressure had affected the president.
Recent days may well have been Trump’s most unsettling as president. During the past weekend, Trump spent hours alone with his smartphone, pumping out a torrent of 50 tweets that were read all around the planet. He attacked old enemies (real and perceived) in messages often lacking coherence and validity. He complained about not only the unfairness of his usual alphabet of news network suspects, but also “SNL” (yes, “Saturday Night Live”). And as he awaited the result of Mueller’s probe that could possibly determine how history would view his presidency, Trump reflexively began lashing out against one individual who had done him no harm for some time now — the late Sen. John McCain, who was buried seven months ago.
McCain’s loved ones may have moved on from their mourning, but Trump clearly still clings to his hatred of a genuine American hero, who served valiantly and endured horrific torture as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. During the 2016 campaign, Trump shamefully said he considered McCain a loser because he had gotten captured (when his Navy jet was shot down over North Vietnam).
What many may not recall is that McCain had turned down a North Vietnamese offer to release him because his father was a famous admiral; McCain told his captors he would stay (and endure more torture) unless they would release his fellow American prisoners.
While most of Washington’s famous Republicans avoided publicly condemning Trump’s attacks on McCain, one principled conservative did. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., told Washington journalist A.B. Stoddard that Trump’s attack on the late senator was “unthinkable” and on Georgia Public Broadcasting he called Trump’s attacks on McCain “deplorable.”
But as Isakson was saying that in Georgia, Trump was speaking at a military tank factory in Lima, Ohio, when he suddenly launched into a five-minute attack on the late senator and war hero who had long championed veterans’ causes. Trump complained that McCain “didn’t get the job done for our great vets at the VA.” As workers listened in stunned silence, Trump also claimed McCain finished last in his Annapolis class (no, he was fifth from last) and grumbled about not getting a thank-you for allowing McCain to have a hero’s funeral.
The next day, when Fox Business network’s Maria Bartiromo interviewer asked Trump why he kept attacking McCain, Trump insisted: “I don’t talk about it. People ask me the question.” Wrong — he instigated those attacks in his tweets and speech.
But we now know the real answer to the Fox interviewer’s question — because Trump complained about it to his staff and even told us in that interview. He was inaccurately blaming McCain for starting all of his Mueller probe miseries.
Trump told Bartiromo that McCain “gave to the FBI the fake news dossier,” referring to the dossier of unverified activities involving Trump and Russia that was prepared by a retired British spy, Christopher Steele — and insists that began the FBI probe. Wrong. The FBI had already begun investigating other reports of ties between Trump’s campaign and Russians when McCain, quite properly, gave the FBI his copy of the document that other politicos and journalists already had.
But it fit Trump’s style to find relief from the pressure of the Mueller probe vise by distort the facts — and blaming his troubles on the deceased adversary he apparently still loves to hate. The dossier “was paid for by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats,” Trump said. “They gave it to John McCain, who gave it to the FBI for very evil purposes.”
Not quite. Far from “evil purposes,” McCain knew Trump could be vulnerable to a Russian blackmailer — and wanted to be sure that never happened. So he gave his copy to the FBI so they could show it to Trump. And he never got a Trump-styled thank-you. Until this week.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him e-mail at martin.schramgmail.com.