Welcome to your tape, Mr. President.
By the time this goes to press, Donald Trump will probably have given half a dozen more reasons why he fired FBI Director James Comey.
Only hours after giving Comey his walking papers on May 9, the White House issued a statement saying Trump acted on the recommendations of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who criticized Comey for “usurping the Attorney General’s authority,” when Comey announced that he would not bring charges against Hillary Clinton in connection with her emails.
Two days later, Trump appeared on NBC Nightly News and said he fired Comey because the FBI is investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’”
As if that doesn’t bring back enough déjà vu of Watergate, on May 10, Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office, where he told them, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Then Trump spilled the beans about some highly classified Israeli intelligence involving an ISIS plot.
Trump is firing people faster than he did on The Apprentice—except now he’s firing people who have information to add to the ongoing Russia probe. Former Attorney General Sally Yates had warned him about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; Flynn (who, technically, resigned, but under duress) had lied his head off about communicating with the Russian ambassador, making Flynn vulnerable to blackmail; former US Attorney Preet Bharara was investigating the Trump Foundation; in the hours before Trump fired Comey, federal investigators had issued grand jury subpoenas to Flynn and his associates...see a pattern here?
But Trump can’t get rid of everybody who has damaging information about him, and the dots are starting to connect. In February, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn. Cornered by this revelation, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey claimed that in a January meeting, Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty. Trump denies this and claims Comey reassured him that he was not under investigation.
When reporters asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to clarify, Trump tweeted a threat to freeze out the media: “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
Yates and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper have already testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Flynn offered to testify in exchange for immunity, but his request was denied. Comey has agreed to testify, but only if his testimony is public.
The backlash against Comey’s firing was swift, with renewed calls for an independent investigation. On May 17, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself because he has his own dirty laundry—he had contact with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, not that that stopped him from recommending that Trump fire Comey.)
So far, both Republicans and Democrats have responded well to Mueller’s involvement. Even Trump didn’t throw a tantrum about it, although he may not understand that he can’t fire Mueller. Rosenstein could fire Mueller. Trump could pressure Rosenstein to do it and fire Rosenstein if he refuses. Trump could even order Jeff Sessions to revoke the Justice Department’s authority to appoint special counsel—a scenario that would normally be too outrageous to consider, but this is the Donald we’re talking about.
The investigation will likely take years (think Iran-Contra or Whitewater-Lewinski, which lasted seven years and four years, respectively), and it’s unlikely that Mueller can bring charges against Trump no matter what he finds. The Justice Department’s Legal Counsel issued an opinion in 2000 that the Constitution grants immunity to sitting presidents. The DOJ also requires special counsel to get permission from the National Security Division before probing national security matters.
Meanwhile, the sound-boxes at Fox News are showing us how to spin a scandal:
•Magnify doubts (“There may be something to it,” said Brit Hume, “but remember it is based entirely on anonymous sources.”);
•Claim it’s no big deal even if it’s true (“It's like a three-day story,” said Charles Krauthammer. “This is the president slipping on a banana peel.”); and
•Distract and confuse (“Maybe the Russians were the leakers!” said Jesse Waters.)
Breitbart News, the font of insanity managed by Trump strategist Steve Bannon, claims the whole thing was fabricated by the “deep state”—a conspiracy theory that has Barack Obama still running the country via a shadow government. GOP party leaders are trying to make out like the leaks calling out Flynn were more serious than Flynn being in cahoots with Russia.
You know it’s bad when Republicans start making Fox News sound sane by comparison.
Thomas Walchuk has been a lifelong political junkie since the summer of 1972, when he traveled to his rustic family cabin in Grandma’s VW camper bus, listening to the Watergate hearings on the van’s tinny AM/FM radio console. His grandmother, a forceful and deliberate woman who was one of the first female lawyers in Minnesota, was an incredible influence on the young Mr. Walchuk. As a result, he is an advocate for the oppressed, and appalled at our current government on both sides of the aisle. His focus here is on the president’s ethical and moral shortcomings.