The President Is Slowly Running Out of Plank
Richard Levick, Chairman and CEO, LEVICK
While cable news commentators wrestled last week with the nuances of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony and bloviated about who leaked what to whom, a far more significant development in the investigation of the Trump-Russian connection went virtually unacknowledged. Special Counsel Robert Mueller hired as his chief lieutenant Michael Dreeben, the Deputy Solicitor General and a savvy prosecutor who happens to be an expert in criminal law. Dreeben has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court more than 100 times, compiling a formidable track record.
Why does Dreeben’s hiring change the complexion of the probe? Because it means Mueller sees a full-blown criminal, not just civil, investigation. It guarantees that with Dreeben’s fastidious help, Mueller will leave no stone unturned in exposing the depth and depravity of Russia’s interference in America’s electoral institutions.
It’s clear that the White House has already concluded that Mueller and Dreeben, investigators of impeccable reputation, represent an existential threat to the Trump presidency. On the Sunday talk shows, Trump surrogates began floating the prospect of firing Mueller before his investigation even gets untracked. Is dismissing Mueller just a trial balloon fueled by Trumpian hot air? Or is the president seriously going to trigger a crisis that could tear apart the fabric of our constitutional democracy and potentially decimate the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Reagan to which Trump at least nominally belongs?
Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (SC) and Susan Collins (ME) spoke for the conscience wing of the GOP by immediately puncturing the balloon. “It would be a disaster,” Graham said. “There’s no reason to fire Mueller. What’s he done to be fired?” Collins warned that cashiering Mueller would “certainly be an extraordinarily unwise move.”
Sadly, “unwise” pretty much sums up Trump’s handling to date of the Russia investigation. So does “shameful.” But this is a president who would appear to have no shame.
He also appears to have painted himself into a no-win political corner. Per the latest polls, the number of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s performance (well above the 50th percentile) essentially doubles the number of Americans who strongly approve. This means, remarkably, that it’s nearly impossible for him to ever climb out of his hole and surpass the 50 percent approval mark.
The Mueller firing trial balloon has the fingerprints of combative senior aide Steve Bannon all over it: “Ready, fire, aim!” Trump and Bannon are focused solely on their base, which continues to shrink as women, traditional Republicans, and non-college educated white men peel – slowly but surely – away from the Trump coalition.
All of which explains why Trump continues to deploy belligerent rhetoric and pursue extreme positions – pulling out of the Paris climate accords, thwarting Cuban normalization, shredding environmental protections, and inflaming our allies in Europe and around the world.
It also explains, in part, Trump’s unconscionable failure to raise national security concerns in his deliberations with the former FBI director over Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections. Trump and Comey met or talked on nine separate occasions. At no point in those conversations did Trump – as president-elect or as president – ever express concern or even mild curiosity about the repercussions of Russian hacking on America’s democratic institutions.
Some 39 states had their electoral systems disrupted, perhaps compromised, last fall. There’s no assurance whatsoever that it won’t happen again, especially if the president refuses to admit that it happened.
Moreover, it’s now apparent that the Russians have been hell-bent on short-circuiting the U.S. military, too. Exactly how much damage Russian hackers have inflicted on military computer systems – not to mention operational readiness and morale – is unclear. But the mere fact that they’ve done it (are doing it?) ought to send chills up every American’s spine.
A hostile foreign power attacks the very foundations of our Republic – and there’s nary a word of concern from our new president about its effect on national security?
Somewhere the spirit of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is seething – and maybe a little sheepish. Back when plenty of new Americans were skeptical about the level of power delegated to the chief executive in our nascent Constitution, Hamilton assured people in Federalist Paper 68 that, “The process of election affords a moral certainty that the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.”
“Low intrigue” and “little arts of popularity,” thy name is Donald Trump. Poor Hamilton could never have foreseen this scenario. It makes the treachery of Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s adversary and a genuine threat to the Republic, look like child’s play.
Before it’s all said and done, the Russia scandal may make Watergate look like child’s play, too. If Trump goes after Mueller, it will further split the GOP, leaving the old Reagan coalition in tatters. Impugning Mueller and attacking the independence of the judiciary could accelerate the beginning of the end. The scary part is that Trump may back away from firing Mueller now – only to reverse himself down the road once the investigation turns dicey.
They may never volunteer it out loud, but most Republican leaders, nervous about the 2018 mid-term elections and the specter of losing control of Congress, would breathe easier with a President Pence. If Trump’s popularity continues to plummet, it may not take much more to get congressional Republicans to start joining Democrats in calls for the president’s ouster.
Trump has misplayed every step of this sordid episode. He is slowly running out of plank.