Turmoil has been the state of things from the day President Trump was sworn into office, but rarely has the chaos felt as acute as on the opening day of what could be a fateful week. A confluence of events has produced a moment of instability whose waves will affect the coming midterm elections and potentially the future of the Trump presidency.
All this comes as world leaders have gathered for their annual meeting at the United Nations, providing other government leaders front-row seats to the political warfare that has only intensified in the United States since the 2016 election. If the country once was seen as the world’s most effective and enduring democracy, the latest events tell a far different story, that of a nation at war internally and with its institutions under assault.
All branches of government are caught up in the controversies of the moment. In the executive branch, Trump’s long-running war with the Justice Department could be headed for a flash point Thursday when the president meets with embattled Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein at a moment when Rosenstein’s tenure appears to be in doubt.
Whether Rosenstein departs after his meeting with the president, the Justice Department could face a broader purge that could include Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterm elections, changes that would throw into question the future of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election, possible involvement by associates of the Trump campaign and other matters.
Meanwhile, Congress is inflamed over the nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, in a fight that has merged the rawest of partisan politics with the power of the #MeToo movement. A showdown over an accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh is scheduled for a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill. The outcome will leave scars that could roil the high court for many months, if not more.
At this point, the circuits of government and politics are overloaded. There is too much happening at once. Everyone is at battle stations awaiting the latest development, the latest accusation, the latest meeting, the latest tweet, the latest counteroffensive — ready to pounce, and often to reach premature conclusions.
Monday morning produced hours of high drama over Rosenstein, as cable channels and news organizations tried to sort out conflicting descriptions from the White House and the Justice Department of Rosenstein’s visit to the White House. In newsrooms, reporters watched their Twitter feeds as they plumbed sources for reliable information. Was Rosenstein ready to resign because of reports that he had talked about secretly taping the president and seeking to have the 25th Amendment invoked to declare Trump unfit for office? Was he about to be fired because of those reports? Or was it neither?
No one knew what was happening until a statement was issued by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying that Rosenstein and the president would have their meeting Thursday. Trump has been urged by allies, including his friend Sean Hannity of Fox News, not to fire anyone over the reports about Rosenstein. For now, Rosenstein continues in his job, however much he is in limbo.
Rosenstein’s fate appeared extremely tenuous late Monday morning. By afternoon, after a public handshake between him and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly at their meeting, and a benign comment by Trump during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the situation was calmer, if still cloudy.
Trump faces an obvious dilemma. Allowing Rosenstein to remain in place provides a shield for Mueller to keep his investigation on track, an investigation that continues to cause Trump heartburn. Firing Rosenstein would produce a backlash that could cost Republicans more seats in November, and thus potentially put Trump under investigation by a Democratic-controlled House.
The Kavanaugh confirmation fight is as fraught as any in recent memory. For a week, Kavanaugh has faced an accusation, which he denies, that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when the two were teenagers in the Washington suburbs. A new allegation came late Sunday, when the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer reported that Deborah Ramirez recalled Kavanaugh exposing himself to her during a drunken party when the two were at Yale University three decades ago. The New Yorker article fully described the holes in and questions about her account.
With Republicans determined to push through Kavanaugh’s nomination in time for the opening of the court’s new session early next month and Democrats demanding additional delays as a result of the second allegation, the confirmation battle descended further into competing claims and angry rhetoric.
On the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the accusations “a shameful smear campaign.” Republicans accused Democrats of attempted character assassination based on unprovable claims, and accused those in the other party of siding with Ford without hearing her out.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called for a delay in Thursday’s testimony by Ford and Kavanaugh and an investigation into the allegation by Ramirez. Democrats charged that Republicans, while claiming they wanted to hear Ford’s testimony, were dismissive of the California professor and insensitive to her situation and had already judged her as not telling the truth. Some called for Kavanaugh to withdraw. He reiterated his determination not to do so.
These conflicts have produced seemingly irreconcilable positions. The confirmation process for Supreme Court justices is now badly broken. Both sides concede that retribution and payback are now interwoven into the selection and confirmation of those on the high court. Perhaps it will be different if future vacancies won’t affect the ideological balance of the court, but the expectation of a fair process is now doubted by whichever side is not in power.
The president’s attacks on the Justice Department and the rule of law have produced two camps that are deeply split over the conduct of department leaders and of the FBI. Parallel and opposing forces seek — demand — investigations. One calls for the unimpeded completion of the investigation of the president and his associates, wherever the evidence might lead. The other calls for an investigation of those who are investigating the president, or who helped to launch the probe before Mueller came on the scene.
As if all this weren’t enough for one week, one more piece of drama could be in the offing. By this weekend, Congress must approve a spending bill to keep the government running. The president has threatened a shutdown if he doesn’t get money for his border wall. The prospect of a government shutdown used to be treated as a crisis in the making. With everything else going on, it’s just one more log on the raging fire.