The specter of Richard M. Nixon now looms over the administration of Donald J. Trump.
The big question, sadly, is not whether Trump will emulate Nixon’s efforts to thwart the Watergate probe, but only how. Will there be a frontal assault on special counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia probe, a la the Saturday Night massacre — or will Trump try to cripple the investigation through subtler means?
Trump’s first step was some Nixonian bloodletting. With the midterms — and the possibility of immediate electoral consequences — behind him, he axed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’ offense: insufficient servility, as evidenced by his refusal to bastardize the Department of Justice on behalf of his boss.
But though Trump’s immediate victim was Sessions, his ultimate target is obviously Mueller and the Russia probe. His firing of Sessions led congressional Democrats to warn him not to move against the special counsel. Preventing that from happening, however, probably depends on whether Senate Republicans join in those warnings.
The rule of law may hang in the balance.
Sessions’ forced resignation letter sounded a warning there, noting the AG’s own efforts to honor that “glorious tradition that each of us has a responsibility to safeguard.”
Trump, sadly, has little reverence for that cornerstone concept of democracy. We know that he wanted Donald F. McGahn II to fire Mueller, backing off only when the White House legal counsel threatened to resign instead. McGahn himself has since been ushered unceremoniously out of Trump’s employ.
In Matthew Whitaker, the man Trump has elevated to acting attorney general, the president appears to have found the toady Sessions refused to be. Given Whitaker’s oft-expressed hostility toward the Russia probe, his appointment has to be seen as a first step toward corralling the special counsel.
Sessions’ defenestration, after all, comes at a time when Trump is worried that his son Donald Jr. may be in legal jeopardy for his campaign meeting with Russian operatives who he thought had dirt on Hillary Clinton. And at a point when Mueller and his team are focused on close Trump ally Roger Stone, who had campaign contact with several Russian operatives and advance knowledge that e-mails hacked from the Clinton campaign were soon to be released.
If Trump decides not to do the full Nixon, he has several other options for derailing the probe. Whitaker could undermine the investigatory effort by refusing Mueller and his team authority to pursue various avenues. Like, say, an indictment of Stone or Don Jr.
Or he could starve the investigation of resources.
Or squelch the report Mueller is expected to produce.
The deciding factor will no doubt be this: How much does Trump think he can get away with? House minority leader (and likely speaker to be) Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer have warned Trump not to undermine Mueller. But when it comes to deterring the president, the posture of Senate Republicans will probably prove more important. Back before they began transitioning from US senators to Trump footmen, GOP senators warned Trump not to move against Sessions or Mueller. These days, however, it seems more likely that they will meekly echo whatever rationalization the president offers. If so — and if their supine posture leads Trump to fire Mueller or otherwise cripple the probe — a constitutional crisis may be at hand.
So far, Democratic congressional leaders have wisely resisted calls to push for the impeachment of Trump. But if, with his henchman now in charge at the Department of Justice, Trump undermines the investigation, that calculus could quickly change.
After all, there still are some leaders left in the republic who understand the importance of the rule of law to American democracy.