President Trump’s unprecedented meeting on Monday with the FBI director and deputy attorney general regarding a case in which he is directly involved may turn out to be the defining moment of his presidency and for his party. Bob Bauer at the Lawfare blog writes:
[The meeting] was a brazen assertion of presidential authority over the investigation. It was a flaunting of Trump’s belief that even in a highly sensitive matter that bears on his own interests, Trump controls “his” department and can call it to account as he wishes. It is true that the meeting was publicly disclosed, and that the White House issued a statement after-the-fact, but this is not so much an exercise in transparency as it is a victory lap. In his flagrant disregard of a vital norm, Trump is bent on sending a message, and perhaps that message is just as important to him as the substance of the agreement reached by the meeting’s participants.
The meeting’s goal of answering a demand from senior Republican congressional leadership contributes significantly to this fouling of appropriate process. It injects a directly partisan note into the meeting’s function. If the intention was to address a serious and sincerely raised question about the integrity of law enforcement procedures, then the White House would have made a public point of also engaging the Democratic leadership. The president could have directed that that congressional leadership across the aisle be briefed on the issues raised, the agreement reached, and the reasons for extraordinary measures.
Naturally, Democrats protested vehemently. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a forceful letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray declaring that the meeting “is completely improper in its proposed form and would set a damaging precedent for your institutions and the rule of law.” They warned, “We can think of no legitimate oversight justification for the ex parte dissemination – at the direction of the president – of investigative information to the president’s staunchest defenders in Congress and, ultimately, to the president’s legal defense team.” However, they wrote, if Rosenstein and Wray think the meeting is necessary to prevent things from “devolving into an outright constitutional crisis,” then the only proper body to receive information was the so-called Gang of Eight (the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee).
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also called on Rosenstein to revisit his decision “to release highly sensitive, highly classified information to members of Congress who have indicated that they intend to use it to undermine an ongoing investigation and federal law enforcement.” They urged him to “cancel any plan to release this information until its disclosure will avoid putting the Special Counsel’s work at risk.”
The hubbub resulted in an odd compromise — two meetings on Thursday, one with Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and a second with the Gang of Eight. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Wray, Rosenstein and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats would attend the second. Why they could not combine it all into one meeting (Nunes will presumably attend both) is a mystery. On one hand, the outrage of a partisan briefing is mitigated; on the other hand, the president’s plan to disgorge confidential information and extract details of an investigation into his own campaign sets a horrible precedent.
We can speculate as to why Rosenstein and Wray agreed to the format for Thursday’s meeting. We really do not have a full picture of what Wray, Rosenstein and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (with whom Rosenstein and Wray almost certainly consulted) are up to. They may wind up providing nothing more than what is available currently in the media. If information is leaked from either meeting, there will be reason to interrogate the participants.
What is clear is that Republican members of Congress are “utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily,” as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) aptly put it in a commencement address at Harvard Law School on Wednesday. (Even more frankly, he told the Daily Beast: “I hope that more of my colleagues would speak up. Sometimes we are starting to look more and more like the Cabinet meeting [with members exhibiting overwhelming obsequiousness to Trump]. And that’s concerning. This is an independent branch of government. We have to more jealously guard our prerogatives.”)
Don’t hold your breath waiting for responsible Republicans to step forward. If you want an independent branch of government, you’ll need Democratic majorities in the House and/or Senate. If you want a president and White House staff who will live up to their oaths of office, you’ll have to wait until the end of the Trump administration. God willing, that will come sooner rather than later.