Commentary: Donald Trump and the price of poker

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Boy, it would be fun to play poker with Donald Trump.

Probably profitable, too.

John Krull, publisher,

Judging from the way he’s handled the investigation into his campaign’s – and now, apparently, his administration’s and his family’s – ties with Russia, the president of the United States doesn’t know how to bluff. He hasn’t a clue how to hide his hand. And he often seems to have only the vaguest notion of the cards he does hold in that hand.

He’d be easy to pick clean.

But, then, playing poker well requires a person to pay attention and be disciplined.

And paying attention and staying disciplined are not things President Trump does well. Often, he doesn’t do them at all.

That is why he or those close to him now are likely in real trouble. If the reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is working with grand juries now are true – and there is no credible reason to believe that they aren’t – then it means Mueller has found evidence of a crime or crimes being committed.

It doesn’t have to be collusion.

That always was going to be a hard case to make. Every prosecutor and constitutional law expert with whom I have talked has said that proving the president or members of his inner circle worked with the Russians to influence the outcome of the 2016 election would be difficult – and maybe even impossible – particularly if there were no ballots altered in the effort.

(Ironically, Trump’s repeated and factually unsupported claims of voter fraud actually might harm his case, if those claims somehow turned out to be true.)

The fact that the president and his brain trust never were in serious legal jeopardy from the collusion charges is what makes his moves in response to them so revealing.

And so troubling.

If Trump really didn’t have any ties with Russia – as he repeatedly and loudly has claimed – then the way to make this issue go away would be to throw open both his doors and his files to investigators and tell them to knock themselves out while he goes about the business of being president.

Instead, he’s fired FBI Director James Comey – and changed his rationale for doing so with every other breath. He’s threatened and tried to undercut Mueller. He’s even tried, via, of course, Twitter, to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign so that he can appoint another, more pliable person in Sessions’ place, one who would presumably muzzle Mueller.

In doing so, he’s likely built at least the beginnings of a case for obstruction of justice.

This is where the president’s lack of a poker face hurts him.

What seems to drive Trump into a fury is any hint or indication that Mueller or other investigators might be looking into the president’s financial records and dealings. He’s fulminated that there should be a “red line” no one should cross.

Good luck there, Mr. President.

Special counsels tend to go where the trail leads.

That’s why, 20-some years ago, an investigation that started with a losing Arkansas real estate deal ended up focusing on an intern and oral sex in Bill Clinton’s White House. Kenneth Starr’s investigation produced an impeachment of a president – only the second in the nation’s history –and a presidential censure, also only the second in American history.

President Clinton doubtless wished he could have drawn a “red line” where investigators and prosecutors couldn’t go.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Because Trump has shown everyone where he feels the most tender – in his finances – Mueller and his team doubtless are going through those records with microscopes right now. Trump all but led them there.

There’s a saying among poker players.

It goes like this, “If you sit down at the table and can’t tell who the pigeon is, it’s you.”

The best guess is that Donald Trump can’t spot the pigeon.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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