Exhausting the Possibilities

America should be exhausted by now. How long has Donald Trump been president? There’s a widget for that – 147 days at this moment – but it seems much longer. Every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” – no one has ever seen anything like this before. Donald Trump did what? Donald Trump said what? Canada is our enemy? America will run on coal from now on? Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East for the first time since Israel became a state seventy years ago, in his spare time? No one knows what to expect next, but that’s exhausting.

That’s also absurd. If every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” then, if words mean anything, every day in Washington is quite ordinary. America will just have to get used to the absurd. Donald Trump will do something outrageous. Donald Trump will say something outrageous. It will look like the world is falling apart, and it probably is – but we’ve all been here before.

It’s that Watergate thing. Everyone remembers the hearings. Everyone watched. Sam Ervin was charming – just a simple country lawyer, but deadly. Fred Thompson got to ask “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Alexander Butterfield dropped a bomb – there was a White House taping system and there were tapes. There really was a smoking gun in there – Nixon working out a cover-up. There was nowhere for Nixon to hide. The Supreme Court later forced him to hand those over. The decision was unanimous. Firing Archibald Cox hadn’t helped. They had Nixon on obstruction of justice of the nastiest of kinds – but the star witness in the hearings was John Dean, the White House attorney. Dean knew everything. Dean revealed everything, because he wasn’t going to take the fall for Nixon. He too had participated in obstruction of justice, at the edges. He’d cop to that – he spent a few months in prison – but he knew he wasn’t the problem, and then everyone knew he wasn’t the problem. Nixon was the problem. The House introduced articles of impeachment. There would be a trial in the Senate and Nixon would be convicted – there were more than enough votes for that. Barry Goldwater and the rest of the Republican leadership walked over to the White House and told Nixon it was over. Nixon resigned.

That will never happen again – maybe. Presidents really shouldn’t fire the guy investigating what they’ve been up to. That looks bad. Trump firing James Comey, the head of the FBI, looked bad. This could be Watergate again – maybe. It was “an extraordinary day in Washington” after all. The New York Times tag-team of Michael Shear and Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman reports that:

President Trump escalated his attacks on his own Justice Department on Friday, using an early-morning Twitter rant to condemn the department’s actions as “phony” and “sad!” and to challenge the integrity of the official overseeing the expanding inquiry into Russian influence of the 2016 election.

Acknowledging for the first time publicly that he is under investigation, Mr. Trump appeared to accuse Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, of leading what the president called a “witch hunt.” Mr. Rosenstein appointed a special counsel last month to conduct the investigation after Mr. Trump fired the FBI director, James B. Comey.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” Mr. Trump wrote, apparently referring to a memo Mr. Rosenstein wrote in May that was critical of Mr. Comey’s leadership at the FBI.

Trump seems as nutty as Nixon there. He had already said, to Lester Holt, on national television, that the Rosenstein memo had nothing to do with anything – he had already decided to fire Comey, because of the Russia thing. Does he even listen to himself?

Others listen to him:

The nation’s law enforcement agency is under siege, short-staffed because of delays in filling senior positions and increasingly at odds with a president who had already engaged in a months-long feud with the government’s intelligence agencies.

Several current and former assistant United States attorneys described a sense of listlessness and uncertainty, with some expressing hesitation about pursuing new investigations, not knowing whether there would be an appetite for them once leadership was installed in each district after Mr. Trump fired dozens of United States attorneys who were Obama-era holdovers.

They too are exhausted, for good reason:

In the five weeks since Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey, he has let it be known that he has considered firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation. His personal lawyer bragged about firing Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was let go as part of the mass dismissal of top prosecutors. Newt Gingrich, an ally of the president’s, accused Mr. Mueller of being the tip of the “deep-state spear aimed at destroying” the Trump presidency.

Inside the White House, those close to the president say he has continued to fume about the actions of Justice Department officials, his anger focused mostly on Mr. Rosenstein for appointing Mr. Mueller and on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime political ally whose decision to recuse himself from the Russia case in March enraged Mr. Trump.

Jeff Sessions was supposed to protect him, damn it. He was supposed to stop this nonsense, not step aside:

What the president wanted out of the investigation was simple, several people close to him said: a public statement that he was not under a cloud. What he got instead were reports of Mr. Mueller’s intention to investigate him for possible obstruction of justice…

He is frustrated, friends say, and unsure what to do – apart from tweeting, which he views as the most direct and effective way of defending himself and venting his anger.

That anger burst into public on Twitter late Thursday and continued Friday, as the president repeatedly assailed the legal forces arrayed against him. He accused the news media of pursuing a “phony” obstruction story and accused law enforcement and congressional committees of conducting “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.” He said the investigations are led by “some very bad and conflicted” people.

By Friday morning, his focus was on Mr. Rosenstein, though the president never used his name, and his tweet oversimplified and misstated the truth.

Rosenstein appointed Mueller to do his thing, without any supervision or input from Rosenstein or anyone in the FBI – as an “independent” counsel. Rosenstein is heading nothing here, but he was still defensive:

The outburst came after an oddly worded statement late Thursday from Mr. Rosenstein complaining about news reports based on leaks.

“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country – let alone the branch or agency of government – with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated,” Mr. Rosenstein wrote.

His statement followed two articles by The Washington Post that cited unnamed officials. One said Mr. Mueller’s investigation had widened to include whether Mr. Trump committed obstruction of justice. The other said the investigation was examining financial transactions involving Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law. After Mr. Rosenstein’s statement, The Post updated the article about Mr. Kushner online so that its first sourcing reference was to “U.S. officials.”

The highly unusual statement raised the question of whether Mr. Trump or some other White House official had asked Mr. Rosenstein to publicly discredit the reports.

That was never going to work:

Reaction was swift. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she was “growing increasingly concerned” that Mr. Trump might attempt to fire both Mr. Mueller and Mr. Rosenstein.

“If the president thinks he can fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will shut down the investigation, he’s in for a rude awakening,” she said in a statement. “Even his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law.”

She was thinking of Watergate, and there are parallels:

The apparent expansion of Mr. Mueller’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, including by firing Mr. Comey, has raised the question of whether Mr. Rosenstein, a witness to and participant in the events that culminated in that ouster, may also have to recuse himself from overseeing the inquiry.

If he were to do so, or resign or be fired by Mr. Trump, acting attorney general duties for the inquiry would fall to the department’s No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand.

Ms. Brand has never served as a prosecutor. She advised the Justice Department on selecting judicial nominees under President George W. Bush, and she served as a Republican appointee on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

There was Saturday, October 20, 1973 – Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to fire Archibald Cox. He resigned instead. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus did the same. The guy third in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, as acting head of the Justice Department, suddenly, did the deed – and now Rachel Brand is Bork.

She may not be happy about that, but things are equally tense in the White House:

Members of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team were told to save materials relevant to the federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to a memo obtained by Politico and The New York Times.

The instruction, which came from the team’s lawyer, Kory Langhofer, details how both volunteers and aides must “preserve any physical and electronic records that may be related in any way to the subject matter of the pending investigations.”

The time has come:

The memo includes specific instructions for travel-related materials, as well. According to Politico’s reporting, transition-team members must turn over: “emails, voicemails, text messages, instant messages, social media posts, Word or WordPerfect documents, spreadsheets, databases, telephone logs, audio recordings, videos, photographs or images, information contained on desktops, laptops, tablet computers, smartphones or other portable devices, calendar records, and diary data.”

Failure to follow protocol, the memo warns, “Could result in criminal or civil penalties, and could form the basis of legal claims, legal presumptions, or jury instructions relating to spoliation of evidence.”

Things were that tense, and this tense:

President Donald Trump has added another high-profile lawyer to his personal legal team as the special counsel investigation heats up.

John Dowd, who investigated Pete Rose for Major League Baseball and represented John McCain during the Keating Five Scandal, among other high-profile clients, has joined the president’s legal team, according to two people familiar with the pick. Dowd declined to comment Friday.

The addition of Dowd, a 76-year-old former prosecutor who has practiced law in Washington for decades, adds an experienced hand in the investigation. He joins Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s longtime New York lawyer, Mark Bowe, who works with Kasowitz, and Jay Sekulow.

Trump will be prepared, but maybe not prepared for this:

House Russia investigators are planning to call on Brad Parscale, the digital director of President Donald Trump’s campaign, as the congressional and federal probes dig into any possible connections between the Trump digital operation and Russian operatives, congressional sources said this week.

The House Russia investigation is planning to send an invite to Parscale soon, as they begin scheduling witnesses over the summer, sources said. The Senate intelligence committee is also interested in how Russian bots were able to target political messages in specific districts in critical swing states, although it is not clear if Parscale will be called before the Senate panel as well.

The news from the House comes as federal investigators have dug into Jared Kushner’s role overseeing Trump’s data operation – although he has not been identified as a target of the probe. Kushner is expected to talk soon with Senate investigators about the campaign’s data operation.

Parscale played a critical role behind the scenes on the Trump campaign, directing online spending and voter targeting with the use of a highly sophisticated data bank built by the Republican National Committee.

This is not like Nixon and his tapes, but close enough:

Senate investigators in particular have been interested in looking for a link between the prevalence of fake news that supported Trump and was pinpointed in key areas of Rust Belt states that ultimately flipped from blue to red — and helped Trump secure the White House.

“There have been reports that their ability to target this information, some reports at least saying that in the last week of the campaign in certain precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania there was so much misinformation coming talking about Hillary Clinton’s illnesses or Hillary Clinton stealing money from the State Department or other. It completely blanked out any of the back and forth that was actually going on in the campaign,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said at a March 30 hearing.

Warner then added, “One of the things that seems curious is would the Russians on their own have that level of sophisticated knowledge about the American political system, if they didn’t at least get some advice from someone in America?”

That might be Jared and Brad. Perhaps, like Nixon, Donald Trump should brood, but David Remnick says it’s more complicated than that:

The yearning in the character of Donald Trump for dominance and praise is bottomless, a hunger that is never satisfied. Last week, the President gathered his Cabinet for a meeting with no other purpose than to praise him, to note the great “honor” and “blessing” of serving such a man as he. Trump nodded with grave self-satisfaction, accepting the serial hosannas as his daily due. But even as the members declared, Pyongyang-style, their everlasting gratitude and fealty to the Great Leader, this concocted dumb show of loyalty only served to suggest how unsustainable it all is.

The reason that this White House staff is so leaky, so prepared to express private anxiety and contempt, even while parading obeisance for the cameras, is that the President himself has so far been incapable of garnering its discretion or respect. Trump has made it plain that he is capable of turning his confused fury against anyone in his circle at any time.

It’s not just the tweets:

Trump’s egotism, his demand for one-way loyalty, and his incapacity to assume responsibility for his own untruths and mistakes were, his biographers make plain, his pattern in business and have proved to be his pattern as President.

Veteran Washington reporters tell me that they have never observed this kind of anxiety, regret, and sense of imminent personal doom among White House staffers – not to this degree, anyway. These troubled aides seem to think that they can help their own standing by turning on those around them – and that by retailing information anonymously they will be able to live with themselves after serving a President who has proved so disconnected from the truth and reality.

And that reminded him of Alexander Butterfield:

As an undergraduate, at UCLA, Butterfield knew H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and, after serving in Vietnam and being stationed in Australia, he called on Haldeman, who was Nixon’s most important assistant. Haldeman made Butterfield his deputy. Butterfield got what every D.C. bureaucrat craves most – access. He worked on Nixon’s schedule, his paper flow, his travel; he offered advice, took orders, no matter how bizarre or transitory. Butterfield could not have been more “in the smoke” than he was then. He quickly discovered that Nixon was a fantastically weird and solitary man – rude, unthoughtful, broiling with resentment against the Eastern élites who had somehow wounded him, be it in his imagination or in fact. Butterfield had to manage Nixon’s relations with everyone from his Cabinet members to his wife, Pat, who on vacations resided separately from the President. Butterfield carried out Nixon’s most peculiar orders, whether they involved barring a senior economic adviser from a White House faith service or making sure that Henry Kissinger was no longer seated at state dinners next to the most attractive woman at the occasion. (Nixon, who barely acknowledged, much less touched his own wife in public, resented Kissinger’s public, and well-cultivated, image as a Washington sex symbol.)

Butterfield experienced what all aides do, eventually, if they have the constant access; he was witness to the unguarded and, in Nixon’s case, the most unattractive behavior of a powerful man. Incident after incident revealed Nixon’s distaste for his fellow human beings, his racism and anti-Semitism, his overpowering personal suspicions, and his sad longings. Nixon, the most anti-social of men, needed a briefing memo just to make it through the pleasantries of a staff birthday party.

And that led to the tapes:

In February, 1971, Nixon came up with the idea of putting a voice-activated taping system in his offices. Butterfield was charged with the installation. Haldeman told Butterfield that Nixon wanted the system installed on his telephones and in the Oval Office, his office in the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and the Lincoln Sitting Room. Kissinger was not to know; neither was his senior-most secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Only a few aides and the President were aware that no conversation was now truly confidential. Tiny holes were drilled into the President’s desktop to make way for the microphones. A set of Sony 800B tape recorders was set up in the White House basement.

It was all for the sake of “history,” Nixon said. Kennedy and Johnson had taped selectively, but Nixon wanted it all for the record – his own records – but no one was to know. “Goddamn it, this cannot get out,” Nixon told Butterfield. “Mum’s the word.”

In the end, of course, the tapes were Nixon’s undoing. In July, 1973, when Senate Watergate investigators asked Butterfield point-blank whether the White House taped conversations, Butterfield decided that his loyalty was not to the “cesspool” of Nixon’s White House but to the truth.

Remnick wonders if that will happen again:

Will Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Sessions, Kushner, and many others who have been battered in one way or another by Trump keep their counsel? Will all of them risk their futures to protect someone whose focus is on himself alone, the rest be damned?

Who knows? Josh Marshall only knows this:

It is very difficult to get my head around the question of whether President Trump will fire Robert Mueller. Trump’s personal attack on Mueller yesterday followed by a personal attack on Rod Rosenstein this morning portends a trajectory that ends with the firing of both men. We don’t know that will happen. The consequences of it happening are so dire that it is hard to imagine it will happen. Yet that appears to be more or less precisely what happened with James Comey. Trump is a man of anger and predictable habits. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume Trump won’t eventually fire both men.

This time, however, there’s no happy ending:

If and when Trump fires Mueller he will have shown through his actions that he will not allow any investigation of Russia and his campaign to go forward. Bob Mueller is one of the most respected law enforcement officials in the country. His integrity and independence are considered beyond reproach. If one insists on looking under the veil at his own political leanings, he is a Republican – both a registered Republican and the appointee, as FBI Director, of a Republican (George W. Bush). If Mueller is not acceptable to Trump as an investigator, clearly no legitimate investigator is or ever will be…

If Trump fires Mueller he will have made clear that no investigation of the bundle of Russia-related issues is acceptable. Anyone who took it on after Mueller would know that as soon as the probe heated up or press reports confirmed the seriousness of the investigation that person would also be fired. Would another legitimate person even accept an appointment after that? It’s hard to see. It may be best to say that accepting an appointment under those conditions would be prima facie evidence of unfitness for the job.

That makes this extraordinary:

I cannot think of a set of facts in which a President makes any clearer that they will use the statutory powers of the presidency to render themselves above the rule of law. That sounds like a hyperbolic statement, I know. But look at the facts we’ve just walked through.

That means that Trump fires both men, and:

At that point, the logical move within our constitutional system is for the Congress to move toward impeaching the President and removing him from office. Whether anything like that is in the offing seems quite doubtful – at least at first.

I actually think it’s possible that such a move would push Trump into severe jeopardy in the Senate. But impeachments don’t happen in the Senate. The trial happens there. Impeachment happens in the House. And there I think the prospects are far more dubious.

At that point we will move in uncharted waters.

Expect it:

My biggest concern – based in part on just observing Trump but specifically how Comey’s firing went down – is that Trump will just do this in the middle of the night (at least figuratively but perhaps literally). With no warning. Perhaps no warning even to himself. I fear that it will all go down quickly and impulsively so no other Republicans outside the White House have a chance to walk him through the consequences of his actions. He does it and it’s a fait accompli.

And that’s that, or not:

My best guess is that Trump will not fire Mueller. But I think I base that on the same mix of experience, logic and gut sense that would have led me to believe that firing Comey was out of the question.

America should be exhausted by now. Every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” – no one has ever seen anything like this before. But we have. Now we have to see it again. That’s what’s extraordinary here.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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