The Memo: Trump's anti-Mueller rage is for real

President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE isn’t trying to goad Democrats into impeachment, after all — he is genuinely angry at the prospect.

That’s the main conclusion to be drawn from Trump’s furious reaction to the first public comments from former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE on his report into allegations of Russian collusion.

Mueller on Wednesday emphasized that he had not been able to exonerate Trump on suspicion of obstruction of justice and seemed to imply that Congress should look at taking up the matter, presumably via impeachment proceedings.

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Trump reacted in strident terms, even by his standards, calling impeachment “a dirty, filthy, disgusting word” in brief remarks to reporters on Thursday morning. He has also renewed his attacks on Mueller — “highly conflicted Robert Mueller,” he called him on Twitter — as well as insisting “case closed.”

Prior to the last few days, there had been considerable speculation that Trump saw political advantage in provoking the Democrats into impeachment. 

A longtime Trump friend, Michael Caputo, told The Hill earlier this month that he thought the president might be engaged in a “briar-patch strategy,” luring the Democrats toward impeachment by stonewalling congressional requests for records and discouraging aides from testifying.

Now, however, even Trump allies who see a political upside to impeachment think the president is speaking out of genuine anger rather than pursuing a more devious rope-a-dope strategy.

“I think he is likely legitimately pissed and I doubt that he is trying to goad them,” said one former White House official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “With that said, I’d be happy if he was goading them, because impeachment would be such a political loser on such a monumental level for the Democrats.”

Other former Trump aides are skeptical of the idea that an impeachment proceeding would help the president — and are adamant that he doesn’t want it.

Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser, said the idea that the president was consciously provoking Democrats to impeach him was “nonsense.”

“He’s a branding guy. He’s all about being the 45th president of the United States. He is all about being the richest [person]. ... This is a guy who goes nuts if you say he declared bankruptcy,” Nunberg added. “He doesn’t want to be impeached!”

At times in the past, it has been difficult to discern where Trump’s real anger ends and his strategic thinking begins. 

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During the 2016 primaries, he lambasted his Republican rivals in abrasively personal terms. The barbs and nicknames were sometimes politically devastating, but Trump soon reconciled with a number of his targets. He now counts at least two of them — Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-S.C.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine MORE (R-Ky.) — among his closer congressional allies.

Just last week, Trump stormed out of a meeting with the two top Democrats in Congress, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Kinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy Ocasio-Cortez: Democrats can't blame GOP for end of eviction moratorium MORE (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE (N.Y.), after less than five minutes.

Trump was purportedly irate that Pelosi had accused him of involvement in a “cover up” earlier the same day. 

But the fact that he almost immediately appeared to deliver remarks to the media in the White House Rose Garden — at a lectern to which a sign insisting “No Collusion, No Obstruction” had been affixed — suggested his anger had a preplanned quality.

The president himself the next day called on a number of aides to affirm to the media that he had not lost his temper.

Beyond these specifics, some longtime observers of the president argue that interpreting his actions through a lens of Machiavellian wiliness is usually wrong.

“I think it is almost always a mistake to think that President Trump is acting strategically. He’s just not that kind of thinker,” said Tim O’Brien, the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion and the author of a 2005 biography of the future president. 

“He doesn’t think long-term, he doesn’t think about moving pieces of a puzzle. He generally thinks about what is in front of him. Most of his reactions to things tend to be instinctive and visceral.”

O’Brien acknowledged that this approach can sometimes be effective, especially in the short-term. It is when there are longer-term consequences to Trump’s gut-instinct approach that bigger problems tend to arise, he said.

Other commentators have suggested that Trump’s no-holds-barred approach is sometimes underestimated by his critics and political opponents.

In a November 2018 New York Times op-ed, columnist Bret Stephens argued that “there’s more than one type of intelligence. Trump’s is feral. It strikes fast. It knows where to sink the fang into the vein.”

When it comes to Mueller and Russia, though, some Trump allies mount a different kind of defense. There is genuine ire across the pro-Trump camp about Mueller’s statements. 

The special counsel has both stated that he cannot exonerate the president on obstruction and has suggested that it would have been unconstitutional to charge a sitting president in criminal proceedings. 

While Trump critics see that as Mueller being careful not to overstep his bounds, allies argue he has unfairly placed a cloud of suspicion over the president that is near-impossible to remove.

“What he did was reprehensible, it really was,” said the former Trump White House official.

This source went on to say that Trump’s furious reaction to the Russia investigation throughout its existence was legitimate and understandable.

“I think if it were you or I, we would probably care about it in a more visceral way too,” the former official said. “It’s pretty personal. For months, people were running around falsely claiming he was a puppet of Putin.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.