This was a breathtaking gut punch to the constitutional system. The release of the House Intelligence Committee memo purporting to discredit the Russia probe was predictably followed by a White House statement bemoaning "serious concerns about the integrity of decisions" by senior law enforcement officials.
Brace yourself for more, folks. Asked whether he had confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, Trump replied: "You figure that one out."
"The sacred investigative process." "Unthinkable just a short time ago." Oh please. Nothing is sacred to Trump except protecting himself. And what is unthinkable — except that Trump has made it all too thinkable — is that a president would impugn the integrity of his own Justice Department. That a president, confronted with evidence that a hostile foreign power had tried to influence the election, would repeatedly reject those findings and fail to take action to shore up the nation's defenses against a repetition.
And, most unthinkable, that a president, confronted with evidence that his own top officials found probable cause to surveil a former campaign aide, Carter Page, for acting as the agent of a foreign power, would react with indignation — not at the aide but at the accusation.
Indeed, the most astonishing, unambiguous revelation in the memorandum from Trump apparatchik Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is that four times, under a Democratic administration and a Republican one, the senior-most officials at Justice and the FBI came to the remarkable conclusion that Page was acting as a Russian agent. Four times, that evidence was compelling enough for a warrant to be approved by the court overseeing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Does Nunes have a point that the FISA warrant failed to disclose former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele was paid by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign to dig up dirt on Trump? Perhaps, although there is so much more we don't know. Did the FISA document fail to mention Clinton specifically, which might be explained by a general reluctance in such submissions to name "U.S. persons"? Or did it fail to disclose that Trump's political opponents more generally financed Steele's dossier? The latter would be more troubling.
More important, while Nunes's memo states that the Steele dossier formed "an essential part" of the FISA warrant, the public has no way of knowing — nor should we — what other supporting information existed.
But that is not the point. The point, from Trump's perspective, is to undermine the legitimacy of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and perhaps set into motion the firing of yet another official for serving justice instead of Trump.
Nixonian? The 37th president ordered the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, triggering the resignations of the attorney general and deputy attorney general. But in instigating the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon at least paid lip service to the legitimate needs of the criminal-justice system and the professionalism of the Justice Department.
Consider Nixon's letter to Solicitor General Robert Bork ordering Cox's dismissal. It did not cry "witch hunt" or "politicization," but used the temperate language of the rule of law. In dismantling the special prosecutor's office, Nixon vowed that "the Department of Justice will continue with full vigor the investigations and prosecutions that had been entrusted to the Watergate Special Prosecution Force."
Consider, too, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler's post-massacre insistence, that the president was seeking "to avoid a constitutional confrontation by an action that would give the grand jury what it needs to proceed with its work with the least possible intrusion of presidential privacy."
Yes, Nixon was willing to misuse the machinery of law enforcement and intelligence to his own ends. But Nixon at least knew how Justice and the FBI were supposed to perform and played along. If Trump knows, he doesn't care.
"A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves," Trump said on Friday morning. I've got a suggestion about where to start.
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