President Trump and his surrogates — most especially the Fox News lineup (which includes a fleet of conservative pundits who disgrace themselves by facilitating a political distraction game for Trump), obsequious Republicans in Congress, old allies such as Roger Stone (who wound up getting banned by Twitter) and the talk radio crowd — have been frantically fanning Hillary Clinton non-scandals about Uranium One (it was baseless before and baseless now) and the dossier’s funder. (Fusion GPS initially was hired by the conservative Free Beacon, which at one time claimed not to know the identity of the Republican outfit that first hired Fusion.) The unhinged rants from Trump’s defenders demanding Clinton be locked up for one or both of these reveal how tightly Trump and the right-wing ecosystem that supports him rely on Clinton as an all-purpose distraction.
Upon a moment’s reflection, the non-scandals make no sense (Clinton was colluding with Russia to beat herself in the election?), have been debunked before and in no way affect the liability, if any, of current or ex-Trump administration figures. This is “whataboutism” run amok. It does expose the degree to which Fox News has given up the pretense of a real news organization, preferring the role of state propagandist. (And it’s not just the evening hosts; the non-scandals now monopolize the rest of the schedule.)
The intensity of Trump’s frenzy underscores the peril in which the president now finds himself. Beyond the indictments unsealed this morning, Trump does not know what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has uncovered; which witnesses are flippable; what financial documents have revealed about the Trump business empire; and whether, for example, Mueller finds support for an obstruction of justice charge from Trump’s own public dissembling (e.g., hinting at non-existent tapes of former FBI director James B. Comey). For someone who insists on holding all the cards and intimidating others, Trump finds himself in a uniquely powerless position.
As I have argued, Republicans should be saying publicly that efforts to fire Mueller and/or pardon indicted figures will commence impeachment proceedings. Those moves would set off a constitutional crisis in which the president is using his powers to protect himself from the Justice Department. Even former senator Rick Santorum concedes that it would be “very perilous” for Trump to fire Mueller.
Right now that is a theoretical question, but given how rattled Trump seems to be we shouldn’t rule out the possibility. It is incumbent on media interviewers to ask Republicans if that is their position and if not to justify giving a green light to what would be an unprecedented scheme to protect himself from investigation. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), argued:
Now, I don’t think the president’s power is all that absolute, as people have been suggesting. The president cannot pardon people if it’s an effort to obstruct justice, if it’s an effort to prevent Bob Mueller and others from learning about the president’s own conduct. So, there are limitations. If it were truly unlimited, it would have the effect of nullifying vast portions of the constitution. The president could tell Justice Department officials and other law enforcement to violate the law and that if they did, and it was ever brought up, they were brought up on charges, he would pardon them.
And one principle of constitutional interpretation is you don’t interpret one power as nullifying all of the others.
So, I don’t think it’s unlimited. And I think it would be highly problematic for the president if it’s part of an effort to obstruct justice.
It should surprise no one that congressional Republicans, who have demonstrated their spinelessness again and again, are silent. They’ve got themselves fixated on tax reform, which they irrationally conclude will be imperiled if they try to head off Trump from doing something catastrophic with regard to Mueller or pardons. (Trump needs tax reform as much as they do so he’s not going to block it, for goodness sake, if they speak up to prevent a constitutional crisis.) We will see what else Mueller has in store for us, but if Trump is this hysterical now, one wonders what he’ll be like if a stream of indictments relating to the campaign and/or obstruction of justice begins.
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