If there was ever a doubt about how Donald Trump would respond to the news that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, had impaneled a grand jury in Washington, D.C., to assist with his Russia investigation, Trump dispelled it in characteristic fashion during a campaign-style rally in Huntington, West Virginia, on Thursday night.
“Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania?” he mockingly asked a large and enthusiastic crowd. “Are there any Russians here tonight? Any Russians?” Just a few hours earlier, the Wall Street Journal had broken the news about the grand jury. And Reuters had reported that the grand jury had already issued subpoenas relating to a meeting at Trump Tower last June between Donald Trump, Jr., and several individuals with ties to the Russian government. Calling a grand jury doesn’t indicate that any charges are necessarily on the way, but the two stories did confirm that Mueller’s investigation is moving ahead, and that it has already closed in on the President’s family. (The other attendees at the Trump Tower meeting included Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, and Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager.)
At his rally, Trump didn’t refer explicitly to the grand jury. But he made more clear than ever what his strategy will be for responding to the ongoing investigation: rubbishing it, attacking his Democratic tormentors, and seeking to rally his base of white working-class and middle-class voters. “They can’t beat us at the voting booths, so they’re trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want,” Trump told the crowd. “They are trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and, most impurely, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
At previous rallies, Trump had mentioned the Russia investigation in passing and dismissed it quickly. On Thursday, he spoke about the subject for almost five minutes, which was almost as long as the speech given by Jim Justice, the governor of West Virginia, who announced at the event that he is changing his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. (Justice was on message, too: “What in the world is wrong with us as people?” he exclaimed. “Have we not heard enough about the Russians?")
Having delivered this familiar farrago of innuendo and outright conspiracy theory, Trump returned to the actual Russian investigation. “Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign—there never were,” he said. “We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you, that I can tell you. We won because we totally outworked the other side. We won because millions of patriotic Americans voted to take back their country.”
Trump appeared energized, as he always does when he stands before his most adoring supporters. And in a favorable setting he is, of course, a highly effective demagogue. But even though the rally probably cheered him up, and served as a reminder to Republicans on Capitol Hill that he still has some fervent supporters, the appearance did little to address the dual problems he faces.
The latest developments in the Russia story, together with all the other recent setbacks and scandals, are gradually undermining Trump’s support, even among his base. According to the latest opinion poll from Quinnipiac University, Trump’s approval rating is down to thirty-three per cent. More alarming for Trump, the poll also indicated that fifty per cent of whites without college degrees now disapprove of his performance, compared to just forty-three per cent who approve. In all the previous Quinnipiac surveys, Trump’s net approval rating in this demographic had been positive.
To be sure, Trump can still assemble big, enthusiastic crowds in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. But it is hard to see what he can do to stop the drip-drip-drip from the Russia story. We know from his recent criticisms of Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, that the President would love someone to rid him of Mueller and his investigation—but for now, at least, it looks as though Sessions’s job is safe.
Even without involving Sessions, Trump could conceivably follow Richard Nixon’s example and take the initiative himself to fire the special counsel. But he’d need to find someone at the Justice Department willing to issue the order, and to engage in such a course of action now, when everybody knows a grand jury has been impaneled, would create a huge political storm—perhaps even a fatal one for his Presidency.
If Mueller stays in his job, the conclusion of his investigation could still be a long way off. The special counsel is still adding to his staff and, at least in some areas of his investigation, ramping up the process of gathering information. (Impaneling a grand jury is a way for prosecutors to get subpoenas issued.) Earlier this week, Greg Andres, a veteran criminal prosecutor who headed the Justice Department’s fraud division from 2010 to 2012, left a lucrative job in private practice and became the sixteenth lawyer on Mueller’s team. “It’s an indication that the investigation is going to extend well into 2018,” Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as independent counsel during the Whitewater investigation, told Reuters. “Whether it extends beyond 2018 is an open question.”
At one point in his speech on Thursday, Trump seemed to acknowledge that Mueller and he are both in this is for the long haul. “I just hope the final determination is a truly honest one, which is what the millions of people who gave us our big win in November deserve,” he said. That was a self-serving statement, of course. But in a speech that was long on bravado and denial, it was about as close as Trump came to acknowledging the reality he faces.