In this first holiday season of Donald “You-can-say-Merry-Christmas-again” Trump, it’s the soggy spirit of Watergate that seems to be in the chill December air, pelting us daily like a wintery mix. It’s impossible not to watch a smidgen of cable TV news (let alone four to eight hours a day like some people) coverage of the Trump-Russia scandal, and not feel like you’ve been time-tunneled back to the final days of Richard Nixon: the way the story begins with a break-in (albeit now with space-age technology) at the Democratic National Committee and quickly devolves into allegations of obstruction of justice and tampering with the FBI, punctuated with an argument that amounts to “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” TV show-bookers fight to get John Dean and Carl Bernstein on the air ASAP, while Steven Spielberg just rush-filmed a movie that is essentially the prequel to “All the President’s Men.”
There’s a subtext to all this nostalgia for the era of wide ties and Pet Rocks, which is that Watergate did not end well for Nixon, and now Trump is hitting all the same marks like a doomed protagonist in an entertaining yet utterly predictable Shakespearean tragedy. Don’t be fooled: 2017 is not 1974. “The Broad Street Bullies” won’t be winning the Stanley Cup, and the bully at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is teeing up a scheme to survive his scandal.
Trump’s plan for salvation is wrapped around a remarkable — and alarming — irony. In the fall of 1973, Nixon’s world began to crash down all around him with the rash move that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, when he ousted, Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was investigating him, which then triggered Nixon’s impeachment probe.
In the fall of 2017, rather than honor that lesson from history, the 45th president and his minions are forging a campaign to fire the special counsel investigating Trump, Robert Mueller — and get away with it.
And he just might — any ensuing constitutional crisis and implosion of American democracy be damned. That’s because Trump has assets on his side that Nixon could not have dreamed of four decades ago.
They include an unofficial “state-run media” that goes by the name of Fox News and reliably parrots the latest line from Trump while lambasting his political opponents, a GOP-led Congress that has been largely cowed into submissive lapdogs, and a core base of voters now well-trained to believe the mainstream outlets that report accurately on Mueller and the Trump-Russia scandal are, in fact, “fake news.”
When Mueller’s investigation heated up in recent weeks — with the indictment of Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort followed quickly by the guilty plea from short-timer national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is now presumably providing Mueller with an insider view of any Trump-Russia collusion or efforts last winter to cover things up — Team Trump went into overdrive painting an absurdist portrait of both Mueller and any FBI agents working with him as tainted and out of control. It’s clearly an attempt to lay the groundwork to oust the special prosecutor — a registered Republican who ran the FBI under George W. Bush and was praised just months ago by GOP leaders.
Today, Republicans in Congress — following the lead of Trump himself, who tweeted earlier this month that the FBI is “in tatters” — are trying to make the case that the agency is hopelessly riddled with anti-Trump animus, grilling new FBI director Christopher Wray (a Trump appointment) about individual agents in a manner that would have made proud the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, famed and ultimately censured for his unsubstantiated charges. Much of the focus has fallen on one G-man who — it was later learned — had sent texts to his girlfriend that were critical of Trump. That agent was abruptly yanked off the case by Mueller — even though that seemed extreme to some, because FBI agents (and other federal employees) are actually allowed to harbor and express personal political opinions. But rather than douse the political brush-fires on the right, Mueller’s overly righteous move amplified calls that he or those around him be investigated, or fired … or worse. (That’s compounded by a Fox News report that a Justice Department official was demoted for his contacts with the firm whose work led to the infamous Trump dossier.)
“There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice — it needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in cuffs!” Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, a former district attorney in the president’s home state of New York and a favored Trump insider, declared in over-the-top monologue that viewers saw Saturday night. She’d earlier called former FBI director James Comey — who’d been leading the Russia probe when Trump fired him last spring — “a political whore.” Pirro is a tad over-the-top, to put it lightly, but her core allegation that the FBI and Justice are compromised has been repeated, almost every hour, for Trump partisans who religiously watch Fox.
On Tuesday, one of the lawyers defending Trump, Jay Sekulow, made a remarkable call for a NEW special counsel whose job would be to investigate the FBI and Justice … and how it investigated Trump. “These new revelations require the appointment of a special counsel to investigate,” Sekulow told NBC News, adding this “has nothing to do with Bob Mueller or Mueller’s team.” Trump’s legal team has also floated the idea that the president cannot obstruct justice — a notion which, if accepted, would grant a dictatorial power to the White House.
This is a five-layer Mexican party dip of irony. For one thing, the reality is that while the FBI is hardly above either criticism or scrutiny, the most serious possible ethical missteps by the agency over the last two years are the ones that helped defeat Hillary Clinton and made Trump president — most notably the botched handling and over-inflating of Clinton’s emails in the final days of the 2016 race.
Beyond that, the calls for a full-blown investigation of the FBI and Justice and a de-legitimization of Mueller are a massive grab for a false equivalency.
It is silly to suggest that a few ill–considered texts and contacts by prosecutors or FBI agents are somehow the moral equal of the accusations that high-ranking Trump officials, including the current president’s son, son-in-law, and a U.S. senator-turned-attorney-general, met with top Russian officials or intermediaries and then lied about it, obscuring whether there was a scheme to — as Trump aide K.T. McFarland wrote in an email about Team Putin — “[throw] the U.S.A. election,” and of whether that ensuing cover-up extended all the way to the president, who fired Comey and has raised speculation that he directed Flynn to lie to the FBI.
What Trump and his allies in Congress and the right-wing media are teeing up is nothing less than the most dangerous authoritarian power grab in American history. If the Mueller probe is undermined, if the special counsel is ultimately fired, or if Trump abuses his pardon power to free Flynn, Manafort and the others from possible prison sentences and prevent their future testimony, it will mean these things:
That the president of the United States is indeed above the law.
That our Congress has become a rubber stamp for an autocrat.
That, like in some small, faraway banana republic, there is no longer an independent system of justice.
And that a free press that could have stood up to dictatorship has been neutralized.
Trump has been headed down this path from Day One. Look back at all the things that have happened since January: The firing of Comey, the attacks on legitimate media as “the enemy of the American people” and the non-stop refrains about “Fake News,” the beyond-dubious pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the constant lies that you can disprove either with the naked eye (inauguration crowd size) or a 30-second fact check (that Trump doesn’t know his sexual-misconduct accusers), and the growing demands on Republicans on Capitol Hill for unfettered loyalty or to see your political career end (like Sen. Jeff Flake) — all of these things have been trial runs to see what the president can get away with. In other words, it’s all been a test to see if Trump could pull that “Saturday Night Massacre” and, unlike Nixon, survive. Since he’s gotten away with so much so far, why wouldn’t Trump get Mueller fired?
Still, we shouldn’t let Trump and his co-conspirators get away with this. And I’d love to add that we won’t, but 10 months of Trump history has me on the fence about whether it’s already too late.
Even with democracy on the line, are the Americans who on some level oppose Trump — 60 percent and growing — willing to take to the streets or take other risks to speak out, or even put their bodies on the line if necessary? Because with a majority of Congress and a 5-4 edge on the Supreme Court (no wonder Trump quickly and fairly maturely handled the Neil Gorsuch appointment) on the other side, a unified people — with their beaten-down allies in the media, among the disorganized Democrats, and elsewhere — are the only hope of stopping this. That’s because unlike some Spielberg movie sequel to Watergate, there’s no guarantee that Trump-Russia closes with the soundtrack swelling up and a happy Hollywood ending.