Michigan Congressman Justin Amash made it all seem so simple. He read the Mueller Report, with its detailed description of a pattern of obstruction of justice, and concluded that the President should be impeached. If his colleagues disagreed, Amash tweeted, it could only be because they never bothered to read the report.
Amash was elected to Congress during the Tea Party wave election in 2010 and was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus. He and his colleagues boasted of their old-school values — believing in balanced budgets, law and order, and personal responsibility — and made much of the copies of the Constitution that they carried in the breast pockets of their blazers.
Of course, fealty to the Constitution, law and order, and personal responsibility has lost its salience in today’s GOP, and none of Amash’s colleagues cared one whit for whatever Bob Mueller had to say. Instead, they rained fury and hellfire down upon Amash, who had the temerity to suggest that their emperor has no clothes.
Back in his Michigan district over Memorial Day, however, Amash’s constituents were far more forgiving and showed their support for his principled stance at a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids. When one woman in a MAGA hat harshly berated him for betraying the President — even as several in the crowded tried to shout her down — Amash calmly explained why obstruction of justice matters, particularly in the absence of an underlying crime. It was, ironically, the same argument that Mitch McConnell had made two decades earlier, when a Democrat president faced the same charge.
Amash’s tweets marked the beginning of a bad week for the President. It was not the defection of a single member of Congress that mattered, but rather the support shown for Amash among his constituents. Those are the people that Trump needs to keep on-side, and he knows it.
One of Trump’s tells over the years — has it really been years? — has been how he amps up the rhetoric when he senses things are going to get rough and he needs to solidify his base, and over the past month or two he has dug deep to rile up his supporters. He had to sense in his gut that this week was coming.
The signs became evident at his rally in Green Bay almost two months ago, when he took his rhetoric demonizing immigrants to a new level. Knowing that his refrain about ‘building the Wall’ was getting stale, Trump told his followers that he is now shipping immigrants coming across the southern border to much-hated sanctuary cities. “It was actually my sick idea,” he boasted to his cheering supporters, to unleash crime, drugs, disease and assorted mayhem on the Democrat enemies of TrumpNation.
A few minutes later, Trump pivoted to late-term abortion as he continued to amplify the intensity of his attack on blue state America. “A baby is born,” he explained. “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” It is the modern incarnation of a blood libel.
It does not matter that his administration is not actually sending immigrants to sanctuary cities, or that Democrat women do not actually slaughter their children at birth; what matters is that his claims make great applause lines. Truth is beside the point; what matters is the outrage that his words provoke. That outrage is the shield that Trump relies on to protect him from those intent on bringing him down.
Then there are the presidential pardons for war criminals. Over the past few weeks, Trump made a public show of his plans to pardon soldiers accused and convicted of war crimes. Only Donald Trump could conceive of celebrating Memorial Day by pardoning a Navy SEAL accused of repeated episodes of shooting unarmed civilians and stabbing an enemy prisoner to death; or a Blackwater contractor found guilty of first degree murder in a shooting incident that left 14 Iraqi civilians dead and 18 injured; or a former Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan man; or all of them, for that matter.
Perhaps the President imagined that this would be a fitting way to honor the men and women who died in service to our country. But more likely it was — like his escalating rally rhetoric — a way of girding his most ardent supporters for the battles that he knows lie ahead. As he said in a Breitbart interview earlier this year, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people.” He has the tough people, and he wants to make sure the tough people know that he has their backs.
For Trump, rhetoric is like crack, and as time has passed, the impact of his language has become muted. The graphic here, from a recent story in Axios illustrates the problem. Trump’s “Twitter interaction rate” — a measure of the breadth of his following and the impact of his tweets, tracked by CrowdTangle — has tumbled precipitously. Accordingly, he has had to ratchet things up just to spark the same level of response from his supporters. Those who oppose him are no longer just socialists. They are weak and morally corrupt, while he is tough and prepared to mete out justice; they deserve the crime and disease he is promising to rain down on their cities; they are baby-killing, murderous “scum.”
When Robert Mueller stood at the podium this week and explained in front of the cameras what he had already explained in writing, Donald Trump had to feel the ground beneath his feet start to shift. Republicans in Congress may not have risen to Justin Amash’s words, but anchors on Fox News began to echo Amash’s thinking, as though they had just read the Mueller Report for the first time. “This was not,” anchor Brett Baier declared, “as the president says time and time again, ‘no collusion, no obstruction.” Fox analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano took things a step further, suggesting that that the evidence Mueller laid out was “remarkably similar” to charges that led to the impeachment of former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Attorney General Bob Barr, Napolitano, went on, had “basically whitewashed what Mueller said.”
In the wake of Mueller’s public remarks, and the abject betrayal by Fox News, Trump fell back on a legalistic defense: “Nothing changes from the Mueller Report,” he tweeted. “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed!” It was a startling tactical retreat; ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a far cry from ‘complete exoneration.’ It reflected something that Trump knows in his gut: there may not have been anything new in Mueller’s words; but the fact that he said them on television changed everything. Most Americans don’t read reports; but they do watch TV.
And then there is the tsunami that Trump has feared the most, which also roared into view this week. The bond market. Once hailed by Clinton consigliere James Carville as the most powerful force in politics, the bond market is pointing to rough waters ahead for the U.S. economy. With yields on long-term Treasury bonds continuing to slide, even as short term Treasury yields have been pushed upward by the Federal Reserve Bank, the yield curve is now “inverted.” An inverted yield curve means that long-term interest rates are lower than short-term interest rates, and has long been an accurate market indicator of a recession to come.
Trump knows the truth of James Carville’s quip, and has long feared that a deteriorating economy could be his undoing. For all the mayhem Trump has unleashed on the world — alienating allies, trade wars with foes, sidling up with racists, lies and dissembling day in and day out — he has always believed that as long as the economy kept steaming along, he would be given the benefit of the doubt when Election Day rolled around. Most Americans have no idea what an inverted yield curve is, but Trump knows, and there are few things he fears more.
Donald Trump had little concern for Justin Amash’s defection, but he has long feared the day when voters like those in Grand Rapids might begin to realize that the emperor has no clothes. He feared the day when those voters would watch Bob Mueller say what he had to say on television, knowing that some if it would begin to sink in. And he feared — perhaps most of all — the day when the bond gods turn against him and signaled that the economy was starting to falter. That is why Donald Trump has been amping up the rhetoric, preparing for the storms that he knows lay on the horizon. But he probably never imagined they would all come to pass during the same week.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.