JOHN BRUMMETT: An overplayed hand

Posted: January 30, 2018 at 2:16 a.m.

Not every outrage by Donald Trump is a cause for breathlessness. We must ration our gasps in the Trump age.

Trump did not fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

That was the big scoop Thursday night in the New York Times. When the story broke on the paper's website that evening, cable news networks CNN and MSNBC obsessed excitedly on it.

In Switzerland, Trump called the report fake news. But "overplayed" would be more precise.

The story was about something that didn't happen. News is generally about something that happened.

The story could yet turn out to be consequential. It could be an element of big news later. And we'll find that out when we find it out, and not before.


The Times had good sources, later confirmed by other news organizations, saying that Trump threw a temper tantrum in June and ordered Mueller fired, outlining three contrived justifications. He backed down, these sources say, only after his White House counsel told him the action would be such a mistake that he'd quit before he'd go along with it.

I'd have put the news on Page 3A with maybe a teaser on 1A, rather than at the top of 1A, which is where the Times put it Friday morning.

If I'd been running CNN or MSNBC, I would not have abandoned all previous programming plans from 8 p.m. to midnight. I'd have made the story the lead story, but not the only story.

We in the media don't want to be like the boy who cried wolf--reporting every new discovery of Trumpian outrage in second-coming tones. At this rate, impeachment would seem almost an anti-climax.

Mueller is the veteran and respected investigator and prosecutor looking into Trump, his family and his campaign for criminal ties to Russia in Russia's interference in the recent presidential election.

If Mueller eventually makes a report accusing Trump of obstructing justice or criminal conspiracy, that'll be massive news, and the start, sadly, of an ugly partisan political brawl that will shake the foundations of our systems of law and government.

If he doesn't, then that, too, will be massive news, and a cause for validation and celebration by Trump and humiliation for Democrats and media sources who have obsessed exclusively on the investigation.

In the end, this scoop was entirely about Trump's state of mind. So it's the same now-old story: Trump is a frightful wreck as president, absorbed in self, given to rage, oblivious to the responsibilities of his job that transcend his own ego, and ever a threat to abuse his office unless talked down by aides and Cabinet members and maybe Ivanka sometimes.

Whether Trump wanted Mueller fired because he was afraid of what the investigation will turn up or because the mere existence of the probe was raising questions about the legitimacy of his second-place presidency ... that's the Trump mystery: Is he crooked or just pitiful? Or both?

The crooked part is being investigated by a pro's pro. We'll see. The pitiful part seems to have been established.

We know already that Trump attempted to obstruct justice by trying to get James Comey to back off Michael Flynn and then firing Comey. But justice was not actually obstructed, so the issue becomes one of proportionality: Does Mueller implicate a president for ignorant clumsiness that eventually came to nothing?

Some say the news of Mueller's near-firing establishes the existence of a pattern of attempted obstruction in the presidential state of mind. Mueller and his people can mull that. For my part, the pattern of Trump's state of mind is a long-known ongoing global calamity.

Here's the real headline for the Trump presidency: "Trump nuts; government around him sane and responsible, so far, except occasionally in the Republican Congress that is afraid to stand up to him."

There's one other theory, mentioned by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on Sunday on NBC.

Todd expressed curiosity about the willingness of informed sources to get out the story now of Trump's near-dismissal of Mueller last June, and of the ease with which other news organizations were able to get sources to confirm the Times piece.

Maybe--he suggested--the leak and easy confirmation were either:

• A White House trial balloon to test public reaction in case Trump fires Mueller.

• A pre-emptive leak by heroic White House sources trying to generate an outraged reaction to the concept because they fear Trump is currently on the verge again of moving to fire Mueller.

That seems unlikely. If Trump fired Mueller today, every bit of information he has collected would be in the Times tomorrow.

Here's the relevant status quo: Trump is scary, and Mueller is not fired.

If the latter changes, interrupt scheduled programming and stop the presses, to use old clichés that give away my age.

------------v------------

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 01/30/2018