The problem with writing about Donald Trump is that the outrages come so fast and furious that it’s hard to keep up. The political world is now buzzing over the Washington Post’s blockbuster report on Monday night that Trump divulged code-word secrets — in other words, some of the most highly classified information that the U.S. government possesses — to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office meeting. Yes, that’s important. But don’t lose sight of the firing of James Comey, which is, on balance, an even bigger scandal.
Two days after dismissing Comey, after all, Trump went on NBC and destroyed his own administration’s cover story that the firing was based on the FBI director’s out-of-school public statements about the Hillary Clinton email investigation. “In fact, when I decided to just do it,” the president told Lester Holt, “I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”
In that same interview, Trump confirmed that he had asked Comey on at least three separate occasions whether he was a target of the investigation into Russian tampering with the U.S. election. It subsequently emerged that in January, Trump had dinner with Comey and demanded his loyalty, holding out the implicit threat that if he didn’t deliver he wouldn’t be able to stay on the job. Trump denied to Fox News that he had asked for personal loyalty from the head of the Russia investigation but then undercut his protestations by saying that it would not be “inappropriate” to do so.
As if that weren’t enough, Trump threatened the former FBI director in the manner of a mob boss warning an underling who is thinking of going into the witness protection program. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted on May 12.
Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to obstruct justice. But he is the first to boast about it in public.
It no longer matters whether it can be shown that Trump illicitly colluded with the Kremlin to affect the course of the election — something that would be difficult to prove and even more difficult to prosecute, as David Frum notes in the Atlantic. Trump has now committed obstruction of justice and witness intimidation in plain sight — and as Laurence Tribe, one of the nation’s foremost constitutional law scholars, argues, that should now lead to impeachment proceedings. “To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of ‘obstruction of justice,’” he writes, “is to empty that concept of all meaning.”
One could imagine another charge being added to the bill of impeachment if Trump did indeed disclose code-word secrets to Russia’s representatives. Such an action is criminal if anyone other than the president does it; in the president’s case it is potentially impeachable.
Yet there is no chance of an impeachment inquiry being launched for the simple reason that few if any members of the ruling political party in Washington agree with Tribe’s analysis. In the week that has elapsed after the most serious abuse of presidential authority since Watergate, not a single member of the Trump administration has resigned in protest. Far from it: U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley took to ABC News to falsely claim: “The president is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire whomever he wants.” Haley might want to reread the Constitution, which does not mention anything about a CEO but does charge the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was duped into serving as a cover for Comey’s firing, neither resigned nor appointed a special counsel. He apparently doesn’t much mind having his professional reputation shredded by the conniving commander in chief.
On Capitol Hill, roughly 40 Republicans out of 290 have raised questions about the Comey firing, but only six have called for an independent investigation and only one for a special counsel. Far from
criticizing Trump, many Republicans are high-fiving him. Rep. Liz Cheney, for example, posted Trump’s disingenuous and shameful letter firing Comey with this gleeful Twitter comment: “Best. Termination. Letter. Ever.”
Even outside government, it is hard to point to a single prominent Trump defender who has now switched to criticizing Trump. Bizarrely enough, the libertarian law professor Richard Epstein, who in February was suggesting that Trump should resign, is now defending his termination of Comey. So is William Barr, the attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. Also Kenneth Starr, the former Whitewater independent counsel. He tried to get Bill Clinton impeached for lying about a sexual affair but now claims that there is no cause to appoint a special counsel to look into whether Trump tried to stop the FBI from probing suspected collusion with a hostile foreign power to influence a presidential election.
One thing unites all of these pro-Trump arguments: They are based entirely on a fiction. To wit, the claim that Comey was fired for being mean to “Crooked Hillary.” This is the cover story advanced by the White House in the 24 hours after Comey’s firing and then just as swiftly discarded. But apparently Trump’s defenders haven’t gotten the message: They are acting as if Comey really was let go for the acts that Trump praised him for last year.
To the extent that any of them acknowledge reality — that Trump canned Comey to bring the Russia investigation “to its conclusion,” as White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged — these Republican enablers claim it’s no big deal, because Trump may not get his desire. They act confident that the Russia probe will continue full speed ahead, even though it’s just as likely that Comey’s successor, hand-picked by Trump, will allow the investigation to languish and eventually to die. Certainly anyone in the Justice Department or FBI intent on pursuing the investigation wherever it may lead will now know that he or she is in danger of dismissal — and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not hesitate to drop the axe in spite of his transparently false pledge to have recused himself from the Kremlingate probe.
But even if Trump’s defenders are right, and his firing of Comey does not impede the investigation as intended, how is that a defense? It’s like saying Richard Nixon’s dismissal of Archibald Cox was no big deal because it didn’t stop the Watergate investigation.
Is the standard now that obstruction of justice has to be successful in order to be a crime? Simply trying and failing is just fine?
Independent, nonpartisan observers like former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper can see what’s happening. On CNN, he said Sunday that “our institutions are under assault internally” from President Trump. But Republicans are acting deaf, dumb, and blind — or, even worse, acting as cheerleaders — while this slow-motion assault on the rule of law unfolds. As Fareed Zakaria said in a trenchant commentary, “[I]t appears that the Republican Party is losing any resemblance to a traditional Western political party, instead simply turning into something more commonly found in the developing world: a platform to support the ego, appetites and interests of one man and his family.”
Given the unwillingness of Republicans to act as a check on Trump’s abuse of power, the only remedy that I can see lies in the 2018 midterm elections. It pains me to say this as someone who spent 30 years as a loyal Republican — I re-registered as an independent on Nov. 9 — but I agree with Mark Salter, Sen. John McCain’s former chief of staff, who tweeted: “Words I thought I’d never say: the security of the United States might now depend on electing a Democratic Congress in 2018.”