Donald Trump thrives on his ability to be unpredictable. He posts stream of consciousness tweets, constantly replaces White House staff, and doesn't mind breaking unwritten rules and bending norms. But amid all that chaos, there are also patterns. In a way, Trump's past can help reveal our future as a country — especially since that future could, in part, depend on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump and his team's ties to Russia.
While Mueller is focusing specifically on the Trump campaign team's supposed connections with Russia, people on the outside looking in don't need to limit themselves to information about that part of the president's life. As someone who's been a public figure for most of his life, there's certainly no shortage of information about Trump's past.
The July 2016 exposé by Tony Schwartz, his ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal, started a major discussion on Trump's character and whether he was emotionally fit to be the president (Schwartz, for the record, maintained that he was not). A look at his business dealings revealed a history of reported discrimination and failure, with six bankruptcies to his record, a penchant for fanning racial divisions both in legal circumstances and outside the courtroom, and a tendency to grab at a lawsuit as a prime method of negotiating. As for the discrimination lawsuits brought against him in 1973, Trump said he never signed an admission of guilt and called the accusations "absolutely ridiculous."
Far from being the master of diplomacy that many assumed he would be when he bragged about his superior business skills, USA Today reported that when Trump was elected, he had a history of no fewer than 3,500 cases that his team had either filed or defended him against in federal and state courts all over the country. Don't think that he had a clear record of legal victories, either — despite his claims that he never settles, he has a long history of doing that as well. While Trump has been able to amass a considerable real estate empire and win at least some of those court cases, he's facing an entirely different beast with the Mueller inquiry.
"He is naturally inclined towards a strategy that mixes belligerence and flattery," says Peter Shane, Jacob E. Davis & Jacob E. Davis II chair in law at the Ohio State University. "My guess is that Mr. Mueller is likely to be unmoved by either."
Now that Mueller has made it clear that he's moving fast, we're starting to be able to see Trump's old habits come into play. On Monday, his day began with the news of two indictments and a guilty plea stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into his campaign's ties to Russia. He's had multiple Twitter meltdowns about the investigation already, with repeated claims of "NO COLLUSION" and several attempts to turn the conversation to a hypothetical investigation of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.
Trump's stubbornness on Twitter seems to signal that he understands both the potential trouble he's in and the problems that would ensue if he attempted to stop the investigation in the way he's most familiar with — by firing Mueller as he fired former FBI Director James Comey, who was also running an investigation into his campaign's conduct at the time.
Former top White House strategist Steve Bannon had called that decision the worst mistake "maybe in modern political history," saying that without the firing, there would be no Mueller investigation — an opinion he's certainly not alone in holding. Had Comey been allowed to carry out his investigation into the extensive Trump-Russia connections, there would have been no need for Mueller. Trump created that need himself.
If you're looking at his past, it's easy to assume that Trump's first instinct would be to get rid of Mueller. He's already trying to discredit the whole operation on Twitter, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated in a press briefing that the White House had not ruled out firing Mueller. Trump's aides are cautioning against this, though, and both John Kelly and Trump lawyer Ty Cobb have claimed that they're not giving that approach any consideration.
In a normal situation, with a normal president, this wouldn't be a question to be asked — but Trump has not proven to be a normal president, and the discussion over the issue suggests that Trump has at least mused about it. Shane, however, believes that even Trump's past isn't enough to suggest that he's leaning that direction.
"Trump's litigious background is consistent with his instinct always to come out swinging, but doesn't provide easy guidance in this situation," Shane tells Bustle. "The personal and political stakes in the current situation are simply quite different from commercial litigation."
Were he to follow that path, though, onlookers in Congress and elsewhere believe that firing Mueller could trigger the constitutional crisis that ends the Trump presidency.
"Trump would be impeached the next day if he tried to remove Mueller," former federal prosecutor John Lauro told CNBC on Monday, soon after the news of the indictments and the guilty plea hit.
There's little evidence from Trump's previous comments on the structure of the government that he understands why people would take such a step so seriously, however. After all, this is a president who called the system of checks and balances "archaic," who doesn't support the idea of a free press, and who saw no issue in firing an FBI director investigating his own campaign. On the other hand, with Congress still entirely under Republican control, there's no guarantee that even a step like that would lead to Trump's impeachment.
"Should Trump fire Mueller, it would provoke political outrage," Shane says. "What we don't know is whether that outrage would change the political calculus for any Republicans still keeping their discomfort with Trump to themselves."
There are still many directions that Mueller's investigation could go, and many ways that Trump could choose to deal with it. Even if Trump didn't fire Mueller, the investigation could uncover any number of other infractions that could also bring Trump's presidency to a premature end, from actual collusion with Russia to obstruction of justice. A quick glance at his Twitter feed reveals that Trump knows that he's not safe — and either his past or his hypothetical future misconduct, if it follows his well-worn previous paths, could send him on a quick trip out of the White House.