Earlier this week, Rudy Giuliani publicly declared that Special Counsel Robert Mueller must wrap up his investigation in the next few weeks, or else. “If he doesn’t get it done in the next two or three weeks we will just unload on him like a ton of bricks,” Giuliani said.
It’s likely this is just more bloviating from the president’s lawyer. Justice Department rules do not prohibit Mueller from continuing his investigation in the weeks before the midterms and beyond, and Trump’s latest actions against Mueller aren’t the moves of someone who’s confident he has the ability to crush his enemy.
Stripping former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance this week — and threatening to do the same to nearly a dozen officials who played a role in the Russia investigation — is, in principle, a disturbing escalation of Trump’s willingness to use his executive power against his political foes. But at the moment, the practical consequences are minimal, and they reveal the extent to which Trump feels powerless against Mueller.
The New York Times noted that while Trump has had some success in instigating the firings of law-enforcement officials involved in the investigation, like Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok, and possibly eroding the special counsel’s credibility with the public, he’s yet to make a dramatic move to shutter the investigation. That may be because he can’t get his aides to listen to him:
None of his moves have brought down Mr. Mueller’s investigation, in part because Mr. Trump has mostly resisted the temptation to order officials at the Justice Department to act on his Twitter-fueled musings. And when he has not, including at least two attempts to fire the special counsel, White House aides blocked Mr. Trump’s way.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Trump tweeted that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
Mr. Sessions ignored the president’s demand.
Some experts suggested that Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance to test out what might happen if he tries the same move on Mueller. But a Washington Post report on what sparked Trump’s decision does not paint a picture of a president methodically plotting to sneak a slow-moving Saturday Night Massacre past the American people. It seems he just stumbled on a new executive power, and decided to use it against people who anger him, even if it doesn’t make sense:
Trump grew increasingly agitated about Brennan and others earlier in the summer, believing they were exploiting their credentials as former national security officials to make money, aides said. The president mentioned the Russia investigation when discussing the matter in private and drafted a list of officials who have angered him for Sanders to read at the lectern in the White House briefing room, the aides said.
Although advisers cautioned the president that some people on the list — including Comey and McCabe — had already lost their security clearances when they were fired, Trump insisted that they be included anyway, the senior officials said.
Aides say Trump thinks he came out of the Brennan incident looking strong and decisive, and they warn he’s eager to move against others on his security-clearance review list. But for some reason he didn’t decide to revoke his enemies’ clearance all at once, though experts generally agree that he has the power to do so, and there’s no real review process happening:
Still, as the Russia investigation tightens around the president — Mueller is pressing Trump’s legal team over a potential interview with him — the president remains impulsive and unpredictable, aides said.
“The process is essentially meaningless,” one White House aide said. “If Trump wants to do it, he’ll just do it.”
Many have warned that Trump’s moves could have a chilling effect, making law enforcement and intelligence officers afraid to contradict him. That’s likely true of the rank and file, but so far it’s had the opposite effect on the high-profile critics Trump was targeting.
As Ed Kilgore pointed out when Trump first made his threats in July, revoking security clearance from someone like Susan Rice won’t hurt her reputation or finances because “it’s unlikely anyone is giving her classified information, even if she’s still cleared to review it, and it’s equally unlikely that anyone listening to her thinks she is.”
Rather than silencing Brennan, Trump gave him an opportunity to amplify his warnings. “Mr. Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash,” he wrote in a Times op-ed published Thursday.
A bipartisan group of former top intelligence officials — including former CIA directors William Webster, George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus — came to Brennan’s defense, releasing a letter saying Trump’s move “has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”
The most dramatic protest came from retired admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In a Post op-ed he called Brennan “a man of unparalleled integrity” and asked Trump to pull his clearance too. “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” McRaven said.
These protests have had limited impact, since Republican lawmakers are sticking with their plan to ignore or even defend Trump’s abuses of executive power. (Senator Susan Collins did offer an incredibly mild objection, calling Trump’s decision “unwise,” and saying, “Unless there was some disclosure of classified information of which I’m unaware, I don’t see the grounds for revoking his security clearance.”)
The lack of Republican reaction to his latest overreach probably emboldened Trump a bit, but not enough to unload on Mueller “like a ton of bricks.” He spent Thursday frantically tweeting Brennan attacks transcribed from Fox News personalities, not pulling the security clearance of all Obama officials, pardoning Paul Manafort, or terminating the special-counsel probe, fining any officials who stood in his way. Trump could get there eventually, but for now he’s not sure he could get away with it.