As US President Donald Trump decamped to his mansion-cum-private club in Palm Beach, Florida, for the holidays, he left Washington, DC, on edge. It’s obvious that Trump and his strong allies in Congress – he has more than one might expect – are determined to torpedo what’s supposed to be an independent legal inquiry into whether Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia in its efforts to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Trump camp’s behavior toward Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI, which is aiding Mueller’s investigation, makes Richard Nixon and his aides’ behavior toward the Watergate investigators look tame and respectful by comparison. Although Nixon did fire the first independent prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” another was installed and Nixon ultimately resigned rather than face impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. (In that case, he would have had to leave office without a valuable pension.)
Oddly, Trump and his advisers seem not to have learned from more recent history, either. In firing FBI director James Comey, Trump opened himself up to the appointment of a special counsel. Whether an impeachment effort will be made cannot be known now. But most observers believe that key Republicans in the House of Representatives, where impeachment would begin, have thrown in their lot with Trump, mainly because they fear his loyal base (about a third of the country, clustered in many congressional districts).
That could change if the Democrats take over the House in next November’s midterm elections. But even if the Democrats won both houses of Congress, they would most likely be unable to muster the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump in the Senate.
Trump clearly fears that Mueller will find grounds to indict him. One strong possibility is that the president would be charged with obstructing justice – both an impeachable offense and a crime. A criminal charge of obstruction requires proof of intent to convict, but Trump’s serial efforts to impinge on or halt the investigation suggest that he worries that he would be vulnerable. Whether a president can actually be indicted is an unsettled question; but if Mueller believes that the president shouldn’t be indicted, he would submit his charges to the House, which would then decide whether to proceed with impeachment.
Trump is determined to head off both outcomes, and he’s clearly worried that he might fail. But it’s not just Trump who could be in legal trouble. Mueller has run a disciplined and tight-lipped shop, free of leaks; but it’s widely expected that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will be indicted.
That may explain why Trump is treading where Nixon never dared to go, by trying to smear both Mueller and the FBI. Until now, both had enjoyed bipartisan respect. But Trump has been frustrated by the warnings he has received that firing Mueller would set off a political firestorm. (Because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein must make the call to dismiss Mueller, and has said that he sees no reason to do so, Trump would first have to fire Rosenstein, which would look too much like the Saturday Night Massacre, the turning point in Nixon’s presidency.) So, by raising questions about Mueller’s integrity and that of the FBI, Trump and his allies are trying to set the stage for a widespread public dismissal of whatever Mueller reports.
It’s been a dismaying spectacle. Trump denounces the FBI in his tweets and other statements. His right-wing allies in the House of Representatives (even more partisan than the Senate) have subjected the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, to hostile questioning in various committee hearings. And they have grilled the deputy director, Andrew McCabe – who was close to Comey and could verify his claims that Trump tried to persuade him to limit the investigation – for eight and nine hours at a time.
The bullying of senior Justice Department and FBI officials by House committees has been without precedent since the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. This strategy seeks to force the dismissal or reassignment of troublesome FBI and Justice officials. Sadly, it is having some success. McCabe will reportedly retire in 2018, and a recent poll showed a significant drop in public support for Mueller’s investigation over the past six months.
This is what has the capital on edge. No one can be sure that Trump won’t take some dramatic action – whether related to international affairs or to the Russia investigation – during his sojourn in Palm Beach. While Trump continues to succumb to Vladimir Putin’s blandishments (retired US intelligence official James Clapper recently remarked that Putin, a former KGB agent, is a great case officer in his handling of Trump), US relations with Russia are deteriorating.
Both sides are taking steps that are deepening bilateral tensions. Russian submarines have been trolling near vital Western communications cables on the Atlantic Ocean floor, implying a risk of serious damage to the US and European economies and way of life. In response, NATO plans to establish a new command center to monitor such activities. Russian military planes have also been flying close to NATO aircraft.
Moreover, the Trump administration recently announced that it would permit the sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, to counter Russian aggression there – a move that Russia says will only beget more violence. Then there’s North Korea, with which a war is quite possible, according to some retired military officials.
Trump is known to be volatile and impulsive, but so far his major advisers have restrained him. They work hard at this, trying to avoid taking actions or telling him things that might upset him. The Washington Post recently disclosed that his intelligence briefers avoid talking about Russia.
But the constellation of foreign-policy and intelligence officials around Trump is understood to be about to change. It is widely expected that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be replaced by a more hawkish figure early in 2018. An exodus of White House staff members has begun, owing to dissatisfaction on their or Trump’s part. Even if we get through the holidays in relative peace, it’s clear that 2018 will be a tumultuous year.
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.