By Frank Bowman
During the past week, two discordant trends gathered strength in the parallel universes inhabited by the increasingly Trumpist Republican Party and pretty much everyone else.
One the one hand, evidence of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office continued to mount. Michael Wolff’s book about the Trump campaign and his early days in office, Fire & Fury, was breathlessly previewed, and then released early in the face of a threat by Trump to sue to stop it. Whether or not all the details of the book are accurate, the thrust of its portrayal of Trump — an unprepared, barely literate, narcissist who ran for president as a brand-building stunt, never expected to win, and lacks the minimum levels of intelligence, rectitude, maturity, discipline, and psychological stability necessary for the job — is entirely consistent with the existing public record.
Mr. Trump is reportedly furious about the book, and his handlers have furiously disparaged both book and author. But, typically, Trump’s own uncontrollable compulsion to return fire merely confirmed the truth of the book’s portrait of a man both pathologically insecure and cripplingly wanting in self-awareness. This morning, in response to Wolff’s disparagement of his intelligence and stability, Mr. Trump tweeted that he is “a very stable genius.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, congressional Republicans seem to be unaffected by the ceaseless accretion of proof that Mr. Trump is dangerously unsuited to be president. Indeed, as Trump’s troubles increase, an increasing number of Republican legislators evince a readiness to undermine long-standing governing norms to protect him.
Trump and his defenders obviously view the Mueller investigation as a major threat to the administration. It is increasingly plain that an important faction of Republican legislators also see Mueller as a threat, although it is unclear whether they are most concerned about the danger Mueller poses to Mr. Trump, or the danger that adverse conclusions by Mueller would pose to Republican electoral prospects in coming down-ballot elections. Regardless, a two-pronged Republican strategy seems to be emerging.
Prong one involves attacking Mueller directly, with insinuations that he and his team are servants of an anti-conservative “deep state” embedded in the Justice Department and FBI, and calls for the resignation of AG Jeff Sessions so that he can be replaced by someone who could control Mueller’s supposed “witch hunt.”
Prong two is a transparent, but deeply dangerous, effort to divert attention from Mueller’s work by pressing for federal criminal investigations of Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, former members of the Obama Administration, and others who are either already recognized boogiemen to consumers of far-right media or, like James Comey, are persons whose reputation for probity threatens Trump.
I have previously deplored the willingness of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee to call for legally baseless investigations of Hillary Clinton and her campaign. Such requests are corrosive of the rule of law inasmuch as they seek to politicize the criminal investigative apparatus of the federal government. Worse, they undermine democracy itself by transforming elections into struggles to the death in which all tactics, however reprehensible, are justified by the imperative to avoid losing in an arena where losing could mean prison, or at least the crippling cost of endless investigations.
The latter consequence has now materialized for Secretary Clinton, as it was this week reported that the Justice Department has opened, or re-opened, investigations into the Clinton Foundation and perhaps the e-mail matter. In short, Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice has folded under political pressure and in the process severely damaged its own institutional credibility.
Until this week, I was somewhat comforted by the relative restraint of Republican senators, some of whom had signaled opposition to any effort to fire Mueller or distort the ordinary professional judgments of the Department of Justice. However, my tentative confidence in the relative rectitude of Republican senators was shaken this week when Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made a formal referral to the Justice Department suggesting that criminal charges be brought against Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent whose consulting company assembled the famous dossier about Trump’s connections with Russia.
It is, to be frank, doubtful that the Justice Department will take serious action on this request. But the mere making of it is plainly part of a larger strategy to diffuse the impact of the Mueller investigation, and to discredit Trump critics and sources of information about his Russian contacts. In short, at least some Republican senators are now joining in the deeply dangerous, profoundly corrosive tactic of using the Department of Justice as a pawn in the game of protecting Donald Trump.
Again, the dissonance between the mounting evidence of Mr. Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency and the increasing willingness of elected and appointed Republicans to undermine governmental institutions and democratic norms to protect him, and by extension the Republican Party, is stark.
A collision is coming. I am not confident that the result will be a happy one.