Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met a Russian government intermediary last summer at Trump Tower. Their explicit purpose was to take up an offer from the Russians of dirt on Hillary Clinton. The three senior members of Team Trump were told the information was part of Moscow's efforts to help the GOP presidential nominee.
These circumstances confirm the need for the special counsel investigation into Russia's interference in the election. That investigation, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, is expected to last months, possibly years.
President Trump must learn to live with this reality, unpleasant though it doubtless is. If he does not do so, he will bury his presidency in chaos and destroy his legislative hopes.
Trump's instincts pull him in the opposite direction. When he senses any attack on his credibility or integrity — or those of his family and allies — the president's overweening impulse is to fight back with all his might. That approach served him well during the 2016 campaign. When attacked by the Clinton campaign, Trump made sure he always struck back twice as hard. His appearance of unrestrained strength played well with an angry electorate.
But now that Trump is president and now it is clear that the investigation into collusion between his campaign and Russia cannot be dismissed as just a "witch hunt" and "fake news," the president must adjust. The investigative wheels will turn slowly, but turn they must, to discover the truth, punish crimes if there were any, expose wrongdoing, and reassure the public about the functionality and fairness of the electoral system. If Trump fails to accept this and kicks constantly against the harsh reality, he stands a strong chance of wrecking his presidency and taking his party and the values it represents along with him.
Republicans in Congress recognize this. When asked what the summer meeting at Trump Tower means for the nation, Sen. Marco Rubio surely spoke for most, if not all, GOP lawmakers when he responded that it was in "the Mueller territory."
Rubio's words get to the truth of the matter, and they also point to Trump's best or only way through this mess.
First, the president must recognize that Mueller's investigation is now an unstoppable force. It has bipartisan support in Congress and credibility in the eyes of the judiciary. To fight this inevitability is to wage a war that cannot be won. The fact that the investigation is about national security, whereas the Ken Starr investigation of President Clinton could, however, disingenuously, be dismissed as just about sex, makes Clintonian scorched-earth tactics against the special counsel a nonstarter. On Capitol Hill and across the nation, no one can credibly suggest that getting to the bottom of Russia's election meddling is unimportant. Resisting Mueller on Twitter would be simple self-flagellation.
Every time the president makes a new hyperbolic statement or offers an emotional tweet attacking Mueller's investigation, he degrades his credibility in Congress. Politicians who serve there are accountable to their constituents. Next year, one-third of the Senate and all 435 members of the House will face election. Yet, with Trump's popularity ratings among independent voters shamey at best, many Republicans have reason to judge the president cautiously.
This puts Trump's promises of reforms of healthcare, taxes, and immigration into greater doubt. Public and congressional support are necessary to the passage of bold measures. Though somewhat subtle, Republican leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan are increasingly derisive of the White House. The president's unpredictability is making it harder for these leaders to gather the votes Trump needs.
The healthcare reform effort offers a textbook example. Facing public disapproval of the proposed legislation, both conservative and centrist Republicans in Congress are separating themselves from the president. The strategies of conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and centrist Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, share this in common, even though they oppose each other.
Following Trump's election, Cruz said he was "eager to work with the new president." Asked whether she would work with Trump, Collins offered a similar sentiment to Cruz, stating, "There is no question that the Affordable Care Act needs to be altered in a substantial way." This was the foundation from which a "deal maker" president might have unified conservatives and moderates. But today, both senators are obstacles to Senate passage of healthcare reform. It should concern the White House deeply that both senators believe their political interests are served by resisting the president.
Their approach suggests Trump is increasingly isolated. Nevertheless, the president need not panic nor wallow in self-pity. He has shown a remarkable tenacity and ability to change the direction of political conversation. Were he now to do so again, Trump could consolidate his position as the nation's chief executive.
He must ignore the special counsel investigation and get on with the business of government. He should cooperate where necessary, but focus on other priorities. The mastery of politics requires leadership that maximizes opportunities and mitigates vulnerabilities. Correspondingly, if, as Trump so frequently asserts, the special counsel's investigation is a waste of time, he needs to stop letting it dominate his thoughts and his Twitter feed.
Trump must focus on rebuilding the confidence of members of Congress. He should tweet about legislative proposals and ambitions, and work with Republicans to form intra-party agreement and some semblance of unity.
If Trump continues in his present approach, the tides of individual electoral self-interest will rise against him. As the midterms approach and as more legislative efforts fail, the president's credibility will evaporate. Republicans in Congress will abandon him. And at that point, Trump will have little to do but manage foreign policy and tweet angrily about Mueller.
If he does this, then even if the special counsel ultimately vindicates Trump, it will be too late. He will already have buried his presidency.