Let me put this as simply as I can. After firing FBI Director James Comey for investigating the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians, the president is now openly smearing and threatening to fire his successor as most prominent investigator, special counsel Robert Mueller. There is no question about the motive behind all this, because Trump has told anyone within hearing distance or access to a television that he fired Comey to kill a vital and important investigation into Russian interference in our elections, which yesterday Putin all but admitted: “They meddle in all other countries’ affairs, what did they expect?” For good measure, Trump is now openly arguing through surrogates that Mueller is acting in bad faith, pursuing a “witch hunt,” and should be fired if his investigation gets anywhere near the president.
Every now and again, you have to take a moment, stop being distracted by the constant breaking news, and let all this sink in.
This is now a slow-moving version of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre — but graver. It’s graver because the original crime — the Kremlin’s attempt to hack our elections in possible cahoots with some on the Trump campaign — has so much wider ramifications than an office break-in. It’s an act of virtual war by a foreign adversary that came close to rigging the voting machines, for Pete’s sake. If it was in any way abetted by an American connected to Trump, we absolutely need to find out. And this crisis is more dangerous because the president has not only been trying to prevent or rig any such investigation for months — demanding personal loyalty from the FBI director, pressuring national intelligence officials to exonerate him before the inquiry is finished — but also continues to boast about this obstruction of justice as if there were nothing wrong with it at all.
The truth is Trump cannot abide any kind of investigation of his campaign or of himself by anyone. That would require him to defer to someone else, and his psyche cannot let that happen. (This is the core reason behind his refusal to release his tax returns.) The very idea of actually wanting inspection to clear his name simply doesn’t occur to him. After a lifetime of lying, fraud, debt, secrecy, and bankruptcy, his instinct is always to deny everything and to do all he can to subvert any smidgen of accountability or transparency. And so, despite arguing that there is nothing there in the Russian investigation (which might very well be true), and waiting for vindication, he has attempted to end it prematurely. He literally knows no other way. And he is likely to keep doing this — especially if he is now under direct scrutiny for abuse of power. Asking him to subject himself to a neutral third-party inquiry comes as easily to him as it would to Putin or Duterte or Mugabe. It seems absurd to them — and they, like Trump, would react with incandescent rage.
Again, it takes a while for this to register. But the president, in his anger, is now asserting that the FBI inquiry was initiated by nameless people who already knew that there was no basis to the allegations. Therefore the investigation is “the single greatest witch-hunt in American political history” — surpassing the lowest lows of McCarthyism no less. If Trump cannot stop the investigation, he is doing all he can to delegitimize it, whatever the costs to the credibility of our system of government. And personally attacking the integrity of a Republican former FBI director, who was only recently regarded as a near-parody of bipartisan rectitude, would be a shocking event, if we had not become numb to this president’s malevolent derangement.
And this is more potentially lethal to our democracy than Watergate because today’s Republican Party is utterly different than Nixon’s. It has been taken over by a mass movement led by a cult idol and there are no Republicans of any stature or heft who are prepared to stand up to him, as some once famously did with Nixon. Hence the spectacle of Newt Gingrich. A month ago, he called Mueller “a superb choice.” This past week, he tweeted that anyone who thinks Mueller will be fair in his investigation is “delusional.” Worse, actually: Mueller is “now clearly the tip of the deep state spear aimed at destroying or at a minimum undermining and crippling the Trump presidency.”
The official RNC talking points in response to the latest Washington Post bombshell about Trump himself being under scrutiny include this beaut: “This story is nothing more than an example of even more leaks coming out of the FBI and special counsel’s office in an effort to undermine the President.”
The right-wing media chorus is also instantly on fleek. “Now we find out that [Mueller is] Leaky Jim Comey’s bestest buddy there ever was. These guys are pals, and now Mueller is going to investigate the dude who fired his amigo? Does that seem cool to you?” vents Kurt Schlichter at Townhall.com. The Daily Mail’s U.S. editor opines: “I’ll say it: If the special counsel’s office is leaking prejudicial information about an investigation, it should be shut down immediately.”
Libertarian law professor Randy Barnett: “Mueller should resign not recuse. If he recuses, the matter will be delegated to one of the Democrat attack lawyers he’s hired.” A key barometer of Republican partisanship, the blogger Glenn Reynolds, endorses all of these arguments. Kellyanne Conway is also busy asserting that because three individuals in Mueller’s legal team have donated to Democrats, it’s automatically rigged.
And so it seems to me completely plausible — even inevitable — that Mueller will be fired too at some point. More saliently, if his team’s work eventually exposes and proves Trump’s obstruction of justice, the only possible recourse, impeachment, will never happen. There will never be 18 Republican senators who will vote against the leader in this Congress or any other.
We will have a criminal in the White House indefinitely, utterly impervious to sanction, and emboldened even further. And he will have brought almost half the country along with him, digging deeper in with every news cycle.
Over a year ago, in this magazine’s pages, I wrote the following sentence: “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.” We are about to find out if I was right.