Opinion writer

We’re not much further along than we were Monday in piecing together the explanation for former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe’s abrupt departure. Reports are disturbing insofar as they paint a picture of a vengeful president who is out of control and of a chief of staff, John F. Kelly, helping President Trump to muscle McCabe out of his post. Bloomberg reports:

Trump erupted in anger while traveling to Davos after learning that Associate Attorney General Stephen Boyd warned that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release a classified memo written by House Republican staffers. The memo outlines alleged misdeeds at the FBI and Justice Department related to the Russia investigation.

For Trump, the letter was yet another example of the Justice Department undermining him and stymieing Republican efforts to expose what the president sees as the politically motivated agenda behind Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

Trump’s outburst capped a week where Trump and senior White House officials personally reproached Attorney General Jeff Sessions and asked White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to speak to others — episodes that illustrate Trump’s preoccupation with the Justice Department, according to two of the people.

Once again, we see evidence that Trump believes the Justice Department should be working for him and allowing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’s spurious memo to be released (because Trump thinks it helps him). Trump sees nothing wrong with strong-arming those involved in an investigation of him out the door. He blows up when the DOJ acts on national security grounds and when it complicates a campaign to smear the FBI.

Former Justice spokesman Matt Miller observes that “even beyond the criminal question, which we spend a lot of time on for good reason. . . .the idea of the White House trying to intervene in matters involving an investigation into the president is beyond unacceptable.” The White House spokeswoman’s denial that Trump had any role to play in McCabe’s departure is laughable, and once again raises the question as to why the White House continues to mislead and coverup its actions if it believes the president is behaving properly.

What is also apparent is that far from a moderating influence, Kelly is a foot soldier in Trump’s effort to intimidate the FBI. “After Trump’s strong reaction on Air Force One over the Boyd letter, White House officials, including Kelly, sprang into action again, lashing Justice Department officials Thursday over the decision to send the letter,” Bloomberg reports.

There are vivid, telling details providing insight into Trump’s small-minded, vindictive approach to “governing” — if you can call it that. NBC News reports Trump called McCabe the day after the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey to grouse that Comey was allowed to take a government plane home from Los Angeles:

McCabe told the president he hadn’t been asked to authorize Comey’s flight, but if anyone had asked, he would have approved it, three people familiar with the call recounted to NBC News.

The president was silent for a moment and then turned on McCabe, suggesting he ask his wife how it feels to be a loser — an apparent reference to a failed campaign for state office in Virginia that McCabe’s wife made in 2015.

McCabe replied, “OK, sir.” Trump then hung up the phone.

The White House denies the report, evidencing some awareness that it portrays Trump as a raving lunatic and petty tyrant. But why after all the lies (Never considered firing Robert S. Mueller? No contacts with Russians by the campaign?) would we believe anything the White House has to say at this point?

As weird as this all is, one wonders if it is per se illegal. Some legal experts think it is not but is evidence of intent to obstruct. Former federal prosecutor and Democratic candidate for Illinois’s attorney general Renato Mariotti contends that “it’s another piece of evidence Mueller can use to prove corrupt intent. It’s not obstruction in and of itself.”

However, if this was all part of an attempt by Trump to intimidate witnesses, discredit his own Justice Department and bring the FBI to heel, then it most certainly is another piece of the obstruction puzzle.

Before the latest news, one legal analyst pointed out that if it is true, as a Foreign Policy report alleged, that Trump launched an organized smear campaign against McCabe; chief of staff and senior counselor to the director of the FBI Jim Rybicki; and former FBI general counsel James A. Baker, then the federal witness tampering statute (18 USC Section 1512) might come into play. That statute makes it illegal to use intimidation, threaten, or corruptly persuade another person, or attempts to do so with intent, among other things, to induce someone to change or withhold testimony or to “hinder, delay, or prevent the communication to a law enforcement officer or judge of the United States of information relating to the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense.”

It will be tough to prove the character assassination plan “rose to the level of a knowing attempt to intimidate, threaten or corruptly persuade the men not to testify in front of Mueller or whether the campaign against them was intended to somehow delay or alter their testimony in a way that would not have occurred but for the campaign itself.” Nevertheless, Section 1512 (c) separately gives Mueller some more running room. That subsection makes it illegal to “corruptly” take action that “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.” That generic catch-all could well, if the press accounts prove true, pose one more legal problem for Trump.

In any event, one does get the sense the wheels are coming off the bus at the White House. Trump’s level of panic is rising and his subordinates’ ability to contain him and prevent him from acting on his impulses seems to be diminishing. If not committing new crimes, he’s giving Mueller plenty of evidence of his “corrupt” intent.

Read more:

Trump is tearing down the FBI and the Justice Department. Won’t the GOP stop him?

You want fake news? Watch the State of the Union.

We asked Post readers what the state of the union is. Here’s what they said.

Chuck Schumer: What I’m listening for in Trump’s State of the Union

The State of the Union, in Trump’s real words

On Tuesday night, Trump will double down on his broken promises