There was a line of thinking in Washington this week that President Donald Trump might scale back his rhetoric on the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia, the result of a new White House chief of staff in John Kelly and a reshuffled legal team.
In a campaign-style rally in West Virginia on Thursday night, Trump not only leaned into his previous attacks on the Russia investigation but took them even a step farther.
He referred to the "totally made-up Russia story." He called it a "total fabrication." He insisted Democrats are behind the whole thing because they are looking for "an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics." He argued that "what the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton's 33,000 deleted emails." He made the totally specious argument that no Russians were in the crowd to suggest he couldn't have won the election because of Russia. He mocked Democrats' electoral results, telling them "try winning at the voter booth."
And then, Trump said this:
"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. They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us, and most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution."
That's important. Especially this line: "They're trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want."
There's a lot going on in that sentence so let's unpack it a bit.
First, "they." Trump is ostensibly referring to Democrats here. But, he means it in a wider sense too. "They" are the media, the establishment, the intellectuals -- all the people who tell people in Trump's crowd (and in his America) they don't matter.
Second, the idea that "they" are "trying to cheat you out of the future and the future you want." Two of the most powerful sentiments in life (and in politics) are hope and grievance. And Trump is tapping into both of them.
He alone understands the hopes and dreams of the audience, he suggests. But, those hopes and dream are being cheated away from them by people who mock them, scorn them and focus on all the wrong things -- like Russia.
Logically, the argument doesn't make much sense. How is the federal probe into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election robbing people in West Virginia of their hopes and dreams, exactly?
But Trump has never been a politician whose fundamental appeal is logical. He is a "heart" politician, someone uniquely able to make people feel something , which affects how they think about their world. And, this line of argument -- "They" = bad, you = good, 'They' are focused on Russia, which = bad for you" -- works for people who already likely believe that people in big cities or reporters or the practitioners of politics as usual are scheming against them.
Step back and what's clear is that no one -- not Kelly, not Trump lawyer Ty Cobb, not anyone -- is going to convince the president to lay off the Russia rhetoric. He believes it -- in his bones. This is a hoax investigation being run by people out to get him and abetted by a media that hates him.
Rather than staying quieter as the special counsel investigation gets more serious, Trump seems likely to head in the other direction -- growing increasingly outspoken about the problems he sees with it.
Through any conventional lens, this is a terrible strategy that leaves Trump open to political and legal peril. But, this is Trump. He steers into dangerous waters rather than taking the safe course. It got him to the White House. But can it keep him there?