It is possible that the deafening drumbeat of charges in the GOP-controlled media about alleged liberal bias in the Justice Department and the FBI is only designed to prepare the base to disregard evidence of President Trump’s culpability in the Russia scandal. It would make sense as a grand public-relations strategy. For months, Republicans greeted the news of every incriminating meeting or email by insisting that the latest revelation was not, by itself, criminal proof of collusion. The endless retreating was demoralizing. Perhaps Republicans decided that, to buck up their base, they needed a galvanizing offensive play. They would allege a sinister Deep State conspiracy to persecute Donald Trump and protect Donald Trump’s enemies. Perhaps.
It seems much more likely now that the conspiracy theories and charges serve a different purpose: to give Trump cover to shut down Robert Mueller’s probe and remake the Justice Department into an organ of his personal protection. Several new reports have clarified the president’s disturbing intent.
The Washington Post has a detailed investigation out about Trump’s efforts to control Mueller’s probe in particular, and the Justice Department in general. “The president also made clear in recent days that he hopes new questions facing the investigation allow him or his associates to make changes at the Justice Department,” two sources say. “The president has told close advisers that the memo” — a still-classified summary of conspiracy theories, authored by Republican staffers — “is starting to make people realize how the FBI and the Mueller probe is biased against him and that it could provide him with grounds for either firing or forcing Rosenstein to leave,” reports another source.
A CNN story from Friday provided new details about Trump’s hostility to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller and supervises his work. If Trump wants to stop Mueller, Rosenstein is the figure he’ll have to bend to his will or, more likely (assuming Rosenstein would refuse), fire and replace. Trump distrusts Rosenstein because, the president reportedly says, the deputy attorney general is “a Democrat from Baltimore.” Rosenstein is neither a Democrat nor from Baltimore, but “Democrat from Baltimore” is probably a more acceptable shorthand for Trump’s demographic profiling of Rosenstein than, say, “on the wrong side of the war on Christmas.”
So, why hasn’t Trump acted yet? Reports have also answered this question: because his lawyers keep stopping him. White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit last year when Trump ordered the firing of Mueller. Ty Cobb has taken a gentler approach, assuring the president that Mueller’s investigation will be complete by an ever-receding succession of deadlines (Thanksgiving 2017, New Year’s Eve, the end of this month). Both the Post and CNN report that staffers simply wait out Trump’s blustery orders to fire Rosenstein.
The question is how long this unstable equilibrium will last. While Trump’s lawyers may wish to dissociate themselves from a Nixonian abuse of power that would forever define their reputations, the rest of the party has a broader investment in Trump’s success. If you think it would be an unthinkable scandal for Trump to quash an investigation of his own campaign, you probably get your information primarily or exclusively from mainstream news sources.
Americans who get their information from the conservative alternative news structure have an entirely different impression. Mueller’s investigation has dragged on forever and petered out; the real scandal that has come to light is what is being done to Trump by a liberal cabal within the FBI. From this perspective, Trump’s passivity in the face of a shocking conspiracy to destroy him is an act of almost saintly forbearance. Trump apparently sees the Republican embrace of “the memo” and its conspiratorial implications as evidence that the base would not object to him shutting down an investigation his party sees as corrupt. And he is probably right.
The Post has more confirmation that the president simply fails to grasp that federal law enforcement traditionally acts independently, rather than following the president’s personal whims. The story attributes this belief to Trump’s naïveté as a business owner who has never held office before. He is “a president accustomed to functioning as the executive of a private family business who does not seem to understand that his subordinates have sworn an oath to the Constitution rather than to him.”
But the story also makes it clear that Trump’s lawyers have accepted his l’etat, c’est moi conception of the government’s prosecutorial power. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself because he was a key member of the campaign that was being investigated, and who also lied about his interactions with Russians, has selectively un-recused himself. The Post reports that White House chief of staff John Kelly told Sessions that the president wishes to publish the Republican-authored memo detailing anti-Trump conspiracies. If Sessions is recused from the Russia investigation, he should not be implementing efforts to stop it. Sessions has also tried to satisfy Trump’s demands that the Department of Justice investigate the Clintons — both the moribund email-server investigation and the farcical Uranium One episode have become the subject of renewed prosecutorial scrutiny. In the face of Trump’s anger that Sessions betrayed him by following basic protocol in recusing himself from a massive conflict of interest, Sessions seems determined to prove his loyalty.
“Of course the president ought to be able to expect loyalty,” Newt Gingrich, an unofficial Trump adviser, told the Post of Trump’s demands for law enforcement to reflect his own interests, “He is the chosen president of the United States by the American people, and he is the chief executive. If they’re not loyal to him, who the hell are they supposed to be loyal to?” In Gingrich’s estimation, the “who” must be a single person, and the bounds of this loyalty are apparently infinite.
Two sources tell the Post that Trump “has complained to confidants and aides in recent weeks that he does not understand why he cannot simply give orders to ‘my guys’ at what he sometimes calls the ‘Trump Justice Department.’” The question is whether the department’s mission will remain justice at all or take on the very different objective of Trump justice.
Update: The New York Times has more reporting on the Devin Nunes memo. It alleges that Rosenstein authorized wiretapping on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide who harbored a number of secret connections to Russia for which his public accounts have changed suspiciously, and who the FBI suspected of acting as a Russian agent.
What was wrong with Rosenstein authorizing surveillance of someone who seems to have completely vindicated the suspicions about him? The crime alleged by the memo is that Rosenstein allegedly relied on tips compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, whose dossier has attracted wide attention. Republicans have attacked Steele because his investigation of Trump was financed by Democrats during the campaign. Of course, this does not nullify the value of Steele’s findings. The dossier was a compilation of raw intelligence leads, of which Steele has estimated was about 70% correct.
In any case, there is no reason to believe that the FBI accepted Steele’s information uncritically, or that it formed the entire basis for its investigation. The FBI had many sources for investigating Trump campaign connections to Russia. Dutch intelligence provided an early lead into Russian involvement in the American presidential campaign, and an Australian diplomat drinking with George Papadopoulos was another key moment.
But the Republican argument hinges on presenting Steele as the poisoned tree, and the entire Russia investigation its fruit. The memo zeroes in on Rosenstein using Steele’s memo as misconduct, and this alleged misconduct is the pretext for Trump to fire him, and presumably replace him with a pliable figure who would either fire Mueller, or severely hamper his investigation. The coordinated attacks on Mueller and Rosenstein have a clear point: to give Trump the chance to place the Department of Justice under the control of loyalists who will use its power to prosecute his enemies and shield his allies.