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America Is Heading for an Unprecedented Constitutional Crisis
The Republican Party is ready to serve as an accomplice to obstruction of justice.
White House lawyer Ty Cobb has been attempting to keep the First Client in check by telling him that Robert Mueller’s investigation will soon be over and result in his exoneration. Back in August, Cobb was confident that it would all be over by Thanksgiving. When that didn’t happen, Cobb, like a millenarian cultist adjusting the date of doomsday, claimed that it would end by Christmas. Now Christmas is almost upon us, and no light is visible at the end of the tunnel. Far from it. The investigation, which has already resulted in two indictments and two guilty pleas of Trump advisors, appears to be accelerating and drawing ever closer to the Oval Office.
What will Trump’s reaction be when he figures out he’s been duped — and that the Mueller probe, far from a “nothing burger,” is a carafe of strychnine that poses an existential threat to his presidency? The likely result is that Trump will either pardon everyone involved or try to fire the special counsel, or both. And then the nation will be plunged into a constitutional crisis the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate.
The storm is not yet upon us, but the dark clouds are already visible on the horizon. Ever since the guilty plea from former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on Dec. 1, Trump and his enablers have been throwing a hissy-fit at the FBI, the “Justice” Department (the sarcastic quote marks are the president’s own), and the special counsel’s office by seizing on “evidence” that all three are biased against him.
Mueller inadvertently fanned the flames by quietly relieving a senior FBI agent, Peter Strzok, for sending disparaging texts about Trump to an FBI lawyer with whom he was romantically entangled. You would think that this would be evidence of Mueller’s determination to avoid any taint of bias, even though FBI agents, like other federal employees, are allowed to express political views without fear of retribution. But no. Trump has cynically twisted Mueller’s action to suggest that the removal of an anti-Trump agent is somehow evidence of … anti-Trump bias. Strzok, a widely respected special agent, has now been elevated by the far-right media machine into an archfiend who unfairly exonerated Hillary Clinton and framed Trump.
Trump & Co. are also in a froth about another Mueller subordinate, attorney Andrew Weissmann. His crimes? He apparently attended Hillary Clinton’s election night party and sent an email to acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates saying he was “proud” of her for refusing to enforce Trump’s initial ban on Muslim visitors to the United States — the very ban that was subsequently deemed unconstitutional by numerous courts and totally rewritten by the administration in order to pass legal muster.
Add these attacks to all the other innuendos and smears emanating from the Trump camp. There is the claim that Mueller is biased because he is friends with fired FBI Director James Comey, who is anti-Trump even though Comey did as much as anyone to elect Trump. That members of Mueller’s staff have made campaign donations to Democrats. That the FBI erred in showing interest in the dossier on Kremlin-Trump links compiled by a respected former MI6 officer. That FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s wife received money from Hillary Clinton (in fact, she received campaign funds from the Democratic Party of Virginia and a political action committee associated with Virginia’s Democratic governor when she ran for a state Senate seat in 2015).
Based on such flimsy reasoning, Trump besmirches not just Mueller’s team but the whole FBI, tweeting: “After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters – worst in History!” At his Pensacola rally on Friday, held to promote the Senate candidacy of an accused child molester, Trump decried the entire American government for being biased against him: “This is a rigged system,” he said. “This is a sick system from the inside. And you know there’s no country like our country but we have a lot of sickness in some of our institutions.” It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out which “institutions” he is talking about.
Naturally, the most fervent Trumpkins have gone even farther than Trump himself; in fact, they are said to be frustrated by the “restraint” he has shown in his war against Mueller. Listen to what the talking heads at state TV, aka Fox News, are saying. Sean Hannity calls Mueller “a disgrace to the American justice system” and “the head of the snake.” Jeanine Piro, sounding very much like a budding commissar, claims: “There is a cleansing needed in the FBI and the Department of Justice. It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in handcuffs.” Greg Jarrett compares the FBI to the KGB, as if the G-men were running gulags in Alaska: “I think we now know that the Mueller investigation is illegitimate and corrupt,” he says . “And Mueller has been using the FBI as a political weapon. And the FBI has become America’s secret police. Secret surveillance, wiretapping, intimidation, harassment and threats. It’s like the old KGB that comes for you in the dark of the night banging through your door.”
And, right after the commercial break, the Fox hosts will excoriate Democrats and NFL players for being “anti-police” and glorify Trump for championing “law enforcement.” In fact, to judge by his public pronouncements, Trump is only in favor of enforcing the law against black and brown people. If it’s a matter of saving his own skin, he and his partisans will gleefully burn the nation’s premier law enforcement agency to the ground.
It doesn’t matter to them that Robert Mueller is a decorated combat Marine, professional prosecutor, and — ahem — Republican who has been universally revered for his probity. No less an authority than Newt Gingrich said on May 17: “Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.” But now that Mueller is closing in on Trump, Gingrich scoffs, “How can you seriously say this guy [Mueller] is neutral?” and claims: “At the very top, the Justice Department and the FBI became corrupted.”
If you take seriously such accusations, you would have to conclude that only Republicans are allowed to investigate a Republican president — and not just ordinary, apolitical Republicans like Mueller but very partisan Republicans. Does that mean, therefore, that only Democrats can investigate Democratic presidents? Hardly! After all, most of Trump’s defenders were also defenders of Kenneth W. Starr, an active Republican who was appointed to probe Bill Clinton in 1994 after an earlier independent prosecutor, Republican Robert B. Fiske Jr., was judged to be insufficiently zealous. So apparently the rule is that Democrats are simply not allowed to be prosecutors. Or only Democratic presidents should be investigated. Or something.
The Trump cheering section cannot fathom the possibility that FBI agents and prosecutors might be able to separate their political views from their actions — that just because Peter Strzok might be critical of Trump or Andrew Weissmann a Clinton supporter, they nonetheless take seriously their oaths to enforce the law without fear or favor. Trump has made plain that he would love to use the justice system to exact vengeance on political foes such as “Crooked Hillary,” and he can’t fathom the possibility that anyone else in a position of power might act differently. As with so many of Trump’s hyperbolic criticisms, his vilification of the Justice Department, the FBI, and the special counsel’s office for carrying out a political vendetta represents yet another case of projection.
But given how unfounded and outrageous the attacks are, it is striking and dismaying how few Republicans are rushing to defend Mueller and his team. That is an ominous sign of what will happen if and when Trump tries to fire the special counsel. The GOP has made clear that it is committed not to the rule of law but to the rule of Trump.
The contemptible conduct of Trump’s overzealous supporters is well summarized by one of our most eminent political pundits, who said: “There is something profoundly demeaning and destructive to have the White House systematically undermine an officer of the Justice Department. And when I watch these paid hacks on television, to be quite honest, I am sickened by how unpatriotically they undermine the Constitution of the United States on behalf of their client.”
That was Newt Gingrich speaking in 1998 about attacks on Ken Starr. (Hat tip to Jack Pitney for the quote.) Gingrich’s criticisms apply with equal force today — to himself and to the other Trump defenders who are aiding and abetting the president’s attempts to obstruct justice.