We are heading toward Donald Trump’s version of the Saturday Night Massacre.
While the details aren’t precisely the same, the parallels are many. A president under a widening investigation for (among other things) possible obstruction of justice. A special counsel targeted by the president’s ire. High-ranking officials in the Justice Department unwilling to put loyalty to the president above their obligations to the country, and losing their jobs because of it. All that’s left is the dramatic round of firings and resignations and the headlong rush toward impeachment.
Richard Nixon didn’t have Twitter, but Donald Trump does. And this morning, he attacked his deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein:
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
In addition to everything else, Trump confirms here the reports from anonymous sources that he is the target of an obstruction of justice investigation. Glad we cleared that up.
What does this have to do with Watergate? Let’s go back to the Saturday Night Massacre. In October 1973, Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, demanded that President Nixon turn over recordings of his Oval Office conversations. Nixon refused, and tried to negotiate a deal that Cox rejected. Nixon then ordered the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned. Nixon then ordered the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused, and resigned. Nixon then ordered the next person in the Justice Department hierarchy, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork agreed. While it would be 10 more months before Nixon himself resigned, the Saturday Night Massacre may have been the point where his determination to obstruct the Watergate investigation became the most clear to everyone in the country.
We aren’t there yet, but let’s take a good look at where we are. There is something serious going on between Trump and Rosenstein, who is overseeing the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, only Rosenstein has the authority to fire Mueller. And it’s plain that Trump would like to rid himself of this meddlesome special counsel; the question is whether he will try. Multiple reports from inside the White House paint a picture of Trump as obsessed with the investigation, railing against Mueller and considering whether to fire him — an act that everyone around Trump knows would be a political catastrophe (and possibly a legal one as well). Here’s just one small sample, from Politico:
Just as he has done publicly on Twitter, Trump has told friends and associates that the investigation is a “witch hunt” and that others are out to get him. “It’s basically all he talks about on the phone,” said one adviser who has spoken with Trump and his top aides.
Yesterday, Trump took to Twitter to launch an attack on Mueller:
You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2017
And then this morning he goes after Rosenstein, which requires understanding their brief but troubled relationship. By Trump’s own admission, he had already decided to fire FBI director James Comey when he ordered Rosenstein to prepare a report describing Comey’s alleged shortcomings. But when the firing happened, the White House initially claimed that Trump was only taking Rosenstein’s recommendation to fire Comey, in effect blaming Rosenstein for Trump’s decision. Rosenstein was reportedly so angry about it that he threatened to resign.
Here’s the Daily Beast today, confirming how personal this has gotten for Trump:
“He’s furious at Rosenstein, but the list of his people who enrage him is ever-growing,” a longtime Trump confidant, who recently spoke to the president, told The Daily Beast. “He has no qualms about throwing [Rosenstein] under a bus.”
Then we get this report from ABC News:
The senior Justice Department official with ultimate authority over the special counsel’s probe of Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election has privately acknowledged to colleagues that he may have to recuse himself from the matter, which he took charge of only after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ own recusal, sources tell ABC News.
Those private remarks from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are significant because they reflect the widening nature of the federal probe, which now includes a preliminary inquiry into whether President Donald Trump attempted to obstruct justice when he allegedly tried to curtail the probe and then fired James Comey as FBI director.
Rosenstein, who authored an extensive and publicly-released memorandum recommending Comey’s firing, raised the possibility of his recusal during a recent meeting with Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the Justice Department’s new third-in-command, according to sources.
If Rosenstein is considering recusal, it’s because of his role in the Comey firing — which, let’s not forget, Trump admitted both on national television and in a conversation with Russian officials in the Oval Office that he did out of unhappiness with the Russia investigation. Rosenstein could become a witness in the obstruction investigation, which would make it problematic for him to be overseeing Mueller. The authority would then fall to Brand. Is Trump going to go after her next? What happens if he orders her to fire Mueller? Would she resign in protest like Richardson and Ruckelshaus, or follow orders like Bork?
Let’s step back and try to grasp everything that’s going on here. The president of the United States is waging an inept public relations campaign against the special counsel’s investigation — not the particulars of it, because we know very little about the avenues Mueller is exploring and what he has discovered, but the very fact that he is being investigated at all. As he always does, Trump goes on the attack in personal ways. He seems to divide the world into those who are loyal to him on one hand and enemies on the other. James Comey’s fate may have been sealed when Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty and Comey refused (that is Comey’s account; the White House says it never happened).
While Trump is erratic and impulsive much of the time, he seems particularly so with regard to this investigation. In some limited way it’s understandable — no president likes being investigated — but it seems to be pushing Trump to particular heights of irrationality. If you were trying to limit the investigation and its political fallout and not antagonize the prosecutors, it would be utterly insane to send out these kinds of tweets. Trump’s staff and lawyers are surely begging him to stop. But they can’t control him. There may be people who are willing to stand up to him and tell him that he’s making a mistake, but he’s obviously not willing to listen.
In an ordinary scandal, you have some initial set of misdeeds, and then possibly a coverup that adds more misdeeds that could themselves be criminal. In the Russia scandal we could have those two sets of actions, but on top of them we have a paranoid, infantile president seemingly determined to put himself in ever-greater political and legal jeopardy. The more we learn about how deep Mueller’s investigation is reaching, the higher the chances that Trump will, in a moment of rage, order Mueller to be fired. If you think things are dramatic and absurd right now, just wait — it’s going to get worse.