The reaction of the Trump camp to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s subpoena of Donald Trump Jr. nicely encapsulates several of the prime tenets of the Trump family playbook.
The first tenet: Feign cooperation and practice intransigence. Trump Jr. is reported to be “exasperated” and the president “surprised,” because ostensibly Junior already has cooperated extensively. More generally, the Republican talking point from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on down is, “The case is closed.”
But that’s not accurate. Trump Jr. declined to be interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III about the Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer – the only campaign official who did so. That fact is in the Mueller report, and it is immediately followed by a redaction for grand jury material. Based on my prosecutorial experience, I believe it’s a reasonable surmise that the redacted material concerns Trump Jr.’s saying that he planned to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to testify before a grand jury.
Trump Jr.’s stance was of a piece with his father’s: trumpet full cooperation with the probe even while doggedly, and successfully, eluding all efforts to have him testify or even speak cooperatively with the special counsel.
Current reports are that Trump Jr. intends again to rebuff the committee by invoking the Fifth Amendment. That is of course his right, but only on the ground that his truthful answers would tend to incriminate him, not as a form of crass political resistance. Of course, if he truly believes the truth would incriminate him here, that puts his fine fury in a different light.
The second tenet: Claim there is no legitimate law-enforcement or congressional oversight, only politically motivated harassment of the other party.
Thus, the exasperation and surprise because it was the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee that issued the subpoena — which prompted a fierce and nakedly political pushback from the Trump political machine. A senior adviser to the president’s reelection campaign tweeted to the committee chair, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is retiring in 2022: “I’m sure that you and your non-retiring colleagues are going to put an end to this embarrassment now.” And Trump allies in the Senate jumped all over Burr while threatening other Republicans with election challenges if they supported him.
The third tenet: The normal rules of citizenship and public responsibility do not apply. The committee’s position is that Trump Jr., who has previously been questioned only by committee staffers, always knew he was subject to being recalled for questioning by senators themselves. That’s similar to what happened with Jared Kushner, who was interviewed in July, then appeared without fanfare for a closed-door session in March.
And a recall became particularly exigent once a later witness — Michael Cohen — testified in conflict with the younger Trump. Yet Trump Jr. resisted cooperation over weeks of negotiation before the subpoena was issued.
Like his father, Trump Jr. has zero regard for the public need for his testimony. The Intelligence Committee is not merely duplicating Mueller’s work, which was fundamentally a criminal probe. The Senate’s lookout is, as committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) explained, “an intelligence investigation about the Russia threat and about the way our agencies performed.” It is arrogant of Trump Jr. to treat that vital work as an irritant he can ignore.
Furthermore, whether Trump Jr. lied in his prior testimony is an entirely legitimate and important topic for any congressional investigation. That brings us to the fourth tenet: Lies don’t matter. Trump Jr.’s exasperation is particularly shameless if he previously gave a false account to Congress, as well as to the American people, in his accounts of the Trump Tower meeting. (Remember how they said it was all about the Magnitsky Act and adoptions from Russia, until inculpatory emails emerged?) That possibility is sufficiently concrete to merit further investigation.
The fifth and final page from the Trump playbook: profess outrage, however brazenly, and attack the good faith of the investigators at every turn. As with the president’s attacks on Mueller and the upper echelons of the FBI, party affiliation, reputation for integrity, and legitimacy of the inquiry are all of no moment: any effort even to question the probity of a Trump must be borne of deep-state corruption.
With the acquiescence of Republicans in Congress, who know that it is not true, that toxic party line has worked surprisingly well. But it may not be enough to close the books on Trump Jr.