Why President Trump continues to sit down with major newspapers is unclear; rarely have the interviews ended well for him. But sit he does, and Wednesday’s interview with the New York Times was one of his craziest yet. The interview makes clear that Trump believes he is the ultimate arbiter of investigations into himself — a Nixonian attitude that should scare anyone concerned about the rule of law. I say “should” because despite the president’s chilling words, Republicans will continue to look the other way.
The Times interview was full of remarkable statements on a half-dozen topics, but Trump’s attacks on Justice Department leadership and the Russia investigation are the most chilling. He lashed out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe: “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.” He implied that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein may be partisan because he “is from Baltimore. There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any.” He threatened special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, saying that Mueller has “many other conflicts [of interest] that I haven’t said, but I will at some point” and that any look into his family’s finances unrelated to Russia would be a “violation.”
While the president delivered his broadsides, the deluge of stories about him, his finances and Russia continued. Here is a partial list of stories in the past 24 hours about investigations into the Trump White House:
- The Times reported that regulators are reviewing millions of dollars in loans to Trump from Deutsche Bank.
- Deutsche Bank also expects to provide Mueller’s staff information about Trump’s finances.
- Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort are all scheduled to testify in Senate committees next week.
- The recently departed head of the Office of Government Ethics said Trump’s lawyer asked him if the president could file financial disclosure forms without signing them, i.e. attesting that they were accurate.
- The Associated Press reported that national security adviser H.R. McMaster privately criticized the president’s Russia policy.
- The Times uncovered documents showing that Manafort owed millions in debt to “pro-Russia interests” before becoming Trump’s campaign manager.
Again, that’s just in the past day.
Trump’s fury over Sessions’s recusal and Rosenstein carries a clear message: He wants a partisan calling the shots on the Russia investigation. Trump assumed that the former Alabama senator, one of the first members of Congress to endorse him, would have his back. He complained about Rosenstein, whom he appointed, not because he doubts Rosenstein’s competence, but because he might be a Democrat. There are good reasons to dismiss Sessions — most recently, his constitutionally questionable expansion of civil asset forfeiture. But canning him for a Trump loyalist to oversee the investigation would send a dangerous message about the investigation’s independence.
The threats against Mueller take Trump’s attack on that independence even further. Not only does the president want a partisan overseeing the investigation, but he believes he still controls where it goes. It’s one thing for a independent observer to comment on what Mueller should or shouldn’t be investigating. It’s another thing entirely for the president himself to say it, while musing that he could get Mueller dismissed due to “conflicts” at any time. Beyond that, the president also stated that he could have ended the Michael Flynn investigation at any point — and if he thinks that, he almost certainly believes he has the same power to unilaterally end Mueller’s probe.
Yet despite the Times interview and the other recent developments, Republicans are not going to expand oversight of the Trump White House. There are many steps that could be taken: demanding to see the president’s tax returns, stripping Kushner of his security clearance as a shot across the bow or holding up nominees until the administration answers specific questions, to name a few. None of those actions are likely. In fact, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins reports, while Capitol Hill Republicans are split on just how serious the Russia investigation is, “all of them believe they’re already doing everything they can within reason to hold the president accountable.”
The GOP’s cowardice should not surprise anyone. As I’ve written before, most Republicans supported President Richard Nixon almost to the bitter end of the Watergate scandal. Until Democrats retake Congress, the president’s power will be essentially unchecked. We can only hope the damage he does is minimal.