President Trump's signature ballad, "No Collusion No Obstruction (Fake News Witch Hunt)," gained a new verse this weekend. Inspired by a tweet from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Trump announced to the world late Saturday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has "stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back." His retweet of Falwell's comment, posted the night before, proposed adding two years to his first presidential term "as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup."
Though they prompted some jitters, these tweets strike me as a joke — albeit a very bad one with a subject that should always be off-limits for a sitting president. (Trump is so visibly eager to lay into 2020 Democrats that I doubt his bullying urges would tolerate an election delay.) But even if they shouldn't be taken literally, these comments about "stolen" time are revealing, because the only sort of time the Russia probe has taken from Trump's presidency is press time.
It's not as if Mueller or his team required a significant portion of the president's actual working hours. Trump never gave an in-person interview to the investigation, and by Trump's own account Mueller never spoke with "the people who were closest to me, by far, and knew the Campaign better than anyone." In reality, the probe did interview key campaign and administration figures like former campaign chair Paul Manafort and presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, but still: Neither Trump, his defenders, nor his critics have demonstrated the investigation meaningfully impeded any real policy projects.
Trump himself regularly claims to be the most accomplished American president ever, and he clearly has plenty of time for television and golf. "Despite the disgusting, illegal and unwarranted Witch Hunt," he once tweeted, "we have had the most successful first 17 month Administration in U.S. history — by far!" So there you have it: Per Trump, Mueller's probe did not steal substantial policy time.
What it did take, though, is attention — press attention the president wanted to be used to his benefit. Each new testimony, indictment, and court filing got days of news coverage, little to none of it favorable to Trump. Mueller did not need to find evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia or end the investigation by indicting the president for his probe to produce months of stories reiterating how Trump and his associates are, if not criminal, certainly very far from an integrous crowd. The media covered these stories at length, to Trump's incessant vocal dismay.
Before Trump won the 2016 election — before we were deluged with think pieces on "Trump country" and whether economics or racism or religiosity or whatever proved most crucial to that win — a frequently proposed explanation of the president's campaign was that it was a publicity stunt. The goal was gaining business for the Trump brand, not taking the White House. In running for president, Trump "was simply doing what he always does," posited a representative New York Post op-ed. "Promote the Donald. Generate headlines. Get people talking."
The final weeks of the general election included a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Trump's then-new Washington, D.C., hotel, drawing a rush of speculation that this, not 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, was the capital city address Trump cared about all along.
"As his poll numbers have declined in the closing weeks of the presidential race, Donald J. Trump has begun to engage in barely veiled promotions of his business brand off the campaign trail," reported The New York Times in a story proposing Trump was "at least partly casting his eye beyond the 2016 race, and toward bolstering the brand that bears his name." The event was "just the latest in a pattern of promotions" in which "Trump has used the media attention given to his presidential campaign to highlight his brand," noted NPR, while Target Marketing outlined a multi-decade history of Trump using presidential runs to offset business failures.
Some of Trump's own comments, lackadaisical about the presidency but enthusiastic about his business ventures, have fed this impression too. "He said, 'I think we'll win, and if not, that's okay too,'" then-campaign manager Kellyanne Conway reported of her candidate in late October 2016. "I sort of thought I lost, and I was okay with that," Trump explained to a rally crowd shortly after his victory, recounting how initial exit polls looked favorable to Hillary Clinton. "If I lose, I lose," he added, "and I'm gonna have a nice, easy life." As recently as this past November, Trump told reporters there "was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?"
This weekend's whining about "stolen" time, even in jest, suggests the publicity stunt hypothesis still checks out. It may be too much to say he never wanted to be president, but unquestionably the fate of Trump's personal brand always mattered more to him than that of his political career proper. And that's still the case today. The only time Mueller "stole" from Trump was potentially positive media time, and that's the time he values most.