The good news, arguably, for President Trump is that — more so than the 44 presidencies that came before his — he knows how to change the subject. The bad news is that when Trump does alter the national conversation, it can go from questioning his competence — as in the White House’s epic mishandling of the health care debate — to questioning whether the fundamental rule of law still exists in this country.
On Wednesday, the president proved his point to the world that he doesn’t watch TV all day, as he called in three reporters from the apparently-not-“fake-news”-after-all New York Times for a rambling, 7,500-word chat that bounced around from why Napoleon and Hitler couldn’t conquer Russia (spoiler alert: It’s cold) to his misunderstanding that an athletic young man can buy health insurance for $12 a year, apparently confusing it with that low-cost life insurance that they’re always advertising. (Of course, Trump actually does watch too much TV cable news, so he also presumably thinks the biggest health crises in America are mesothelioma and opioid-induced constipation…but I digress.)
It all got a lot of online yuks — and the now-predictable questions about Trump’s mental stability — but let this president talk for 50 minutes and he’s also going to make some major news. Actually, news is too gentle a word for what the 45th president accomplished here. In just one newspaper interview, Trump managed to torch the U.S. Constitution, quash any lingering quaint notion that the president is not above the law, harass the already dangling-by-a-thread independence of federal prosecutors and investigators, and shake the legal underpinnings of the government.
The specifics of what Trump said — a stunning vote of no-confidence in the attorney general for not stepping up to kill the probe involving the president’s 2016 election campaign, and various threats and bullying remarks directed toward special counsel Robert Mueller and others in the Justice Department and the FBI — are stunning enough. But the wider implications are even worse.
For weeks, Americans — those in 58 percent or more who strongly disapprove of Trump’s antics, anyway — have worried that the president would emulate his disgraced role model of the 1970s, Richard Nixon, and pull his own version of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” by ordering officials in the Justice Department to fire Mueller and end the investigation into whether officials from his campaign colluded with Russia over hacked emails, actual “fake news” and other efforts to meddle in last fall’s election. Indeed, there was a trial run with his so-called “Tuesday Night Massacre,” the firing of FBI chief Jim Comey. But in his New York Times interview, Trump already accomplished what Nixon tried — and ultimately failed — to do 44 years ago. With his words, he made it clear that loyalty to an authoritarian president of the United States now trumps the uncorrupted rule of law.
Simply put, President Trump has already pulled off a “Saturday Night Massacre” with his mouth. Are you still waiting for the Trump administration to trigger a constitutional crisis? Don’t bother. It’s here.
The lowlight of the interview was Trump’s statement that he never would have named former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general had he known that Sessions would recuse himself from the so-called Trump-Russia investigation, which he did in March after acknowledging that he’d failed to disclose at least two contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak during his Senate confirmation hearing.
“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump told the Times, adding he thought the decision was “very unfair to the president.”
Let that sink in. Jeff Sessions is the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, with a broad portfolio that includes drug enforcement, voting rights, cyber crime, terrorism, civil rights, and scores of other issues. But none of that matters to Trump. All that matters is that Sessions be there to show his loyalty to president, and to be in a position to control an ongoing probe of his own campaign. If Sessions is not in that role to alter the investigation, the president is saying, and quash it if necessary, then he has no value to Trump. That is mind-boggling, and more truth that Trump is the living embodiment of Nixon’s famous statement that when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.
Attn. R. Mueller: Pressuring officials not to recuse from an investigation when their recusal is required is itself obstruction of justice.
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) July 20, 2017
Other tidbits from the interview were also worrisome, though:
— He essentially threatened special counsel Mueller by warning him not to delve into the finances of Trump or his family members. He said that would be a “violation.” He did decline, however, to discuss whether there’d be a circumstance in which he’d push for Mueller’s firing.
— The president made negative or insinuating comments about other key players in Justice or the FBI, painting an oddly paranoid picture with broad brushstrokes. He suggested that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein may be biased because he comes from Baltimore, “a Democratic city” (even though he’s really from just outside Philadelphia, although he was U.S. Attorney in Maryland for a time), slamming his acting FBI director for his politician wife’s ties to Democrats, and suggesting that the ousted FBI chief Comey was trying to gain leverage over him by bringing up the still-unconfirmed dossier of Russia-related allegations against Trump.
— Trump also mangled history by stating that the FBI really reports to the president and started reporting to the Justice Department merely as “a courtesy” when Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal. He bent the facts to fit his actual world view, that the federal justice apparatus exists to serve the White House, not to serve the pursuit of justice.
With his remarks on Wednesday, the president of the United States declared himself to be above the law. The rest of it? The firing of Mueller and any other officials who stand in his way, the shutting down of the Trump-Russia probe and — although those first two things may render this unnecessary — the pardoning of family members like son-in-law Jared Kushner and other trusted aides? He can fill in the blanks with those specifics later down the road.
“The system” will work, and prevent him from doing that, you say. Perhaps. But Trump and his minions have been waging war on our democratic norms, such as an unfettered free press and the public’s general right to information, let alone the truth, in ways both large and small for the last six months, and “the system” hasn’t really done jack. Maybe “the system” — including any members of Congress who suddenly care more about preserving democracy than about preserving their job in a GOP primary — will stop the hijacking of our legal system. But so far “the system” hasn’t even gotten out of bed yet.