The nation’s capital hasn’t seen a summer like this in at least a generation.
There’s growing talk that President Donald Trump might try to pulls strings to remove Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating whether his campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Trump has publicly, and now daily, undercut his attorney general, former Sen. Jeff Sessions, an early and top ally who recused himself from the Russia inquiry, and is said to be looking for ways to oust him.
The president has already sacked one FBI director — James Comey — over his anger with the ongoing Russia investigation. He has also reportedly inquired about his power to pardon – presumably aides and family members linked to the Russia probe, and there are several, and possibly himself as well.
Washington seems braced for a crash. It’s either hurtling toward a constitutional crisis, or at the very least, a noisy and disruptive political pileup.
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“We’re heading toward a monumental collision between Trump and Special Counsel Mueller,” said Peter Wehner, who served under the last three Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. “It’s clear from what Trump has said, and his own psychology and emotional profile and instability, that this clash was going to happen.”
Washington has endured similar heat waves where institutions and political allegiances have been tested. In 1998, an independent counsel probing President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern subsequently triggered his impeachment by the House of Representatives, though the Senate declined to convict him. In the summer of 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee began to unravel the scandal that led to the August resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The parallels are inescapable, from another possible “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon ordered his attorney general and deputy attorney general in 1973 to fire the Watergate special prosecutor – they both refused and resigned – to a comment during that scandal from Sen. Hugh Scott. The Pennsylvania Republican, who was Senate minority leader at the time and instrumental in pushing Nixon out, said, “a lack of grace in power has led to a fall from grace.”
Modesty and political poise have never been among Trump’s chief assets. He revels in his hard-charging, never-surrender reputation. As president, he’s constantly tossing matches onto dry tinder. Just six months into his term, impeachment, the gravest of steps which the Founders devised, has now become as routine a topic as the health care overhaul or the president’s daily barrage of tweets.
“It’s amazing how many questions Trump is raising, because we’ve never had such a mess before,” said Susan Low Bloch, a constitutional scholar at the Georgetown University Law Center. “We should not have to worry about, ‘can we indict a president,’ or ‘can a president pardon himself?’...I haven’t been as scared for our democracy as I am now.”
In the special counsel’s office, Mueller appears unfazed by Trump’s not-so-veiled threats and reportedly is looking into his finances and business dealings.
We’re in uncharted territory...there’s no moment like this.
Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee
On Capitol Hill, partisanship is in high gear and Republicans themselves are deeply divided. In a telltale sign of the depth of the political intransigence, Trump’s agenda, as well as the GOP’s, is stalled at a time when the party controls both Congress and the White House.
The forbearance Republican lawmakers have consistently extended toward the president, despite his erratic behavior, could become foreboding as the 2018 midterm elections loom.
“They’re stuck with him,” said Wehner. “It’s like an out-of-control locomotive that they have no way of stopping or getting out of its way. They will be collateral damage.”
The warning signs are there. Trump latest approval rating – 38.8 percent – is the lowest of any president in a similar period since the Gallup poll began tracking presidential popularity in 1945.
Others don’t think high noon is near.
“I don’t see this as some sort of seminal moment,” said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s role in the election. “There are lot of questions that need to be resolved. Hopefully they can be resolved, and we can move in whatever direction we need to go. But the nation’s still the nation.”
But in the White House, lawyers involved in the Russia probe come and go. Some presidential aides have already run for the exits. Several, including Trump family members who have been linked to meetings with Russian officials during the campaign, were summoned to Capitol Hill this week to talk behind closed doors to congressional investigators.
This was likely a painful development for Trump, who installed family members as White House advisers ; they remain among his closest confidantes. To see his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and son-in-law Jared Kushner, embroiled in what he continues to dismiss as a “witch hunt,” might recall Nixon’s lament at the height of the Watergate.
It was July 1973 and he had just accepted the resignations of his two closest aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, over their roles in the scandal.
“...I mean, I cut off two arms [Haldeman and Ehrlichman],” Nixon told Henry Kissinger, then his national security adviser, according to the White House tapes. “Who the hell else would have done such a thing -- who has ever done that before?”
A similar scenario for Trump could lie ahead.
It’s like an out-of-control locomotive that they have no way of stopping or getting out of its way. They will be collateral damage.
Former Republican White House aide Peter Wehner, on the impact of Trump’s troubles on Republicans
He came to the capital with a chip on his shoulder. His victory had shocked the political elites. He won by appealing to the anger and frustration that many voters feel toward to their elected leaders. He tapped into their economic anxieties and concerns over the disappearance of comforting cultural norms. He also stoked some of their base fears – about race, terrorism and foreigners.
Some presidents have governed in poetry. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural speech. Some have led in plainspoken prose, like Ronald Reagan’s 1987 invocation in West Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Trump speaks the language of resentment and bravado.
But he freely untethers himself from the truth, whether it’s his false claim about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, or his insistence that Mexico will pay for a border wall and that his health care plan would cover everyone. Under the Senate bill he has supported, 22 million people would lose coverage, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office
Trump ascended to the Oval Office schooled in the fungible nature of business deal-making, but dismissive of the peculiarities of government, like the separation of powers.
He attacks institutions: the courts, the press and his own intelligence community, even when he is overseas, and is impatient with the often glacial pace and arcana of legislating. He wants wins on the board, but neglects the care and feeding of lawmakers necessary to secure those wins.
Indeed, he publicly criticizes members of his own party who don’t fall in line, like Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada.
His departure from the normal behavior of presidents, once startling, now is business as usual. Trump wondered the other day on Twitter why the Justice Department doesn’t investigate his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. He also remains obsessed with his electoral victory last year over Clinton, yet the fact that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes gnaws at him.
He turned an appearance Monday at a Boy Scout Jamboree into a campaign-like event. A speech before a military audience last week at the commissioning of a ship named in honor of former President Gerald Ford became a lobbying plea for health care and defense spending.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Just to have a president of the United States that is so far outside the norms for how a president typically governs and behaves, certainly how he relates to a foreign adversary as serious as (Russia President) Vladimir Putin, there’s no moment like this.”