It is not that the trickle of news leaks staining Donald Trump’s shiny black Guccis from the outset of his presidency have become a flood. Nor that this flood has been a counterbalance to Trump’s outrages, deceits and extraconstitutional forays since congressional Republicans have taken to the fainting couch en masse as evidence of his collusion with Russia in its effort to influence the 2016 presidential election has piled up. It is that the leaks have become so damning that they might have been crafted by a prosecutor seeking Trump’s impeachment. Which come to think of it, is a fine idea. But, alas, a bit premature.
On Monday and Tuesday, a senior intelligence official was quoted as saying Trump’s goal has been to “muddy the waters” about the true scope of the FBI’s Russia scandal investigation, a former CIA general counsel called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power,” and an administration insider said Trump does not care about “maintaining legal boundaries.”
And then came the Mother of All Leaks on Wednesday.
That is when The New York Times reported that U.S. spies collected credible information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political operatives were discussing how to influence Trump through then campaign chairman Paul Manafort and adviser Michael Flynn. Both men, the operatives said, could be used to help shape Trump’s views on Russia. Hет проблем. (No problem).
Meanwhile, the scope of the president’s efforts to shut down the FBI’s Russia scandal investigation has finally hoved into view and it is just as bad as even the most rabid Trump hater could hope it to be.
That scope is far reaching, begs comparison with Richard Nixon’s not dissimilar and ultimately disastrous efforts to try to quash the Watergate probe, and further cements the gut-wrenching reality that Russia not only “brazenly interfered” in the election, as John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, told Congress on Tuesday in what is by now accepted wisdom, but that Team Trump may have been successfully recruited by the Kremlin to help undermine a bedrock of American democracy, which The Times has now all but confirmed.
Brennan, who chose his words with great care, stopped short of saying the Trump campaign had actively helped the Kremlin. But he did not have to be explicit in circumspectly noting there was evidence of “troubling” contacts between Russian officials and the campaign in his testimony before the rejuvenated, Devin Nunes-free House Intelligence Committee.
His gripping appearance came only hours after The Washington Post reported in yet another leak-based scoop that Trump had asked two of the U.S.’s top intel officials to make public statements saying there was no evidence of collusion, which is about all the evidence you need to confirm that there was indeed collusion since the president has consistently refused to open his books — literally and figuratively — to investigators and obviously believes he has a great deal to hide.
Trump, said The Post, made the requests in late March of Dan Coats, the director of national security, and NSA chief Admiral Michael S. Rogers following the March 20 testimony of then-FBI Director James Comey, who in effect called Trump a liar in publicly acknowledging for the first time in testimony before Congress that the FBI’s investigation included Trump associates’ contacts with Russians who were working to sabotage Hillary Clinton.
Coats and Rogers politely declined to do the president’s dirty work.
Is there any doubt that Trump should resign, face impeachment or invocation of the 25th Amendment?
No, unless you are a hair-splitting legal eagle who can’t see the president’s blatant and repeated attempts at obstruction of justice for the trees, or are part of the Republican fainting couch set that is fervently praying he hangs on long enough for him to help enact their Reverse Robin Hood legislative agenda.
Trump’s biggest problem at this point is not belatedly coming clean (which is not in his genes), containing the damage (a fight he already has lost) or co-opting the Republicans (which he has never needed to do), but the reality that the laws designed to flush him out and perhaps bring him down — they’re called checks and balances, Donald — actually are working.
The exception is Congress — and primarily the House of Representatives — being MIA instead of being a check on a runaway president as mandated by the Constitution. (More about this later.)
For what it’s worth — and public opinion is tangental at this point — in September 2006, nearly six years into George W. Bush’s presidency, 29 percent of voters thought he should be impeached. In November 2014, six years into Barack Obama’s presidency, 30 percent were so inclined, while Trump hit 30 percent only one month after taking office and is now at a robust 48 percent.
In any event, Congress can go screw itself for the time being because overall the scandal investigations are accelerating nicely, and there is all this in addition to the cavalcade of damaging leaks and Brennan’s testimony:
- The Senate and House intelligence committees have the deeply corrupt Michael Flynn in their crosshairs. Flynn, who was appointed by Trump to be national security director despite repeated warnings of his Russia-tied toxicity, has repeatedly refused a subpoena from the Senate committee to hand over Russia-related business records and a House subpoena is in the works.
- The circumstances under which Carter Page got easy access to the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016 is being examined by the FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee. Page, a businessman with extensive Russian ties, supposedly was hired as a quick fix for the campaign’s lack of foreign policy expertise. Investigators are especially interested in what conversations Page may have had with Russian officials about their effort to interfere in the election. The FBI obtained and then renewed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court warrant allowing it to monitor Page, whom it believes had been in touch with Russian agents in previous years.
- On Monday, Flynn invoked the Fifth Amendment against self incrimination in response to the Senate missive, although he had said last year that such an act was tantamount to an admission of guilt. On Tuesday he refused again, was told by the committee that businesses cannot take the Fifth, and then on Wednesday refused yet again.
- Trump’s ham-handed efforts to squelch the FBI investigation as it gained serious traction are blowing up in his face big time. When Comey resisted the president’s personal arm-twisting to get him to stop investigating Flynn, Trump unsuccessfully tried to roll Coats and Rogers and of course eventually resorted to firing Comey under false pretenses. What Trump got for his exertions was Robert Mueller, Comey’s no-nonsense predecessor at the FBI, who was named a special prosecutor to head the Justice Department’s foundering investigation. Trump can fire Mueller, but does so at his own peril, a gambit that earned Richard Nixon a one-way trip home to San Clemente aboard Air Force One.
- Trump knows that he needs more than his White House legal staff, so he has hired longtime pal and defense attorney Marc E. Kasowitz — with emphasis on defense — to hold his hand as the various investigations dredge that cesspool. (Bill Clinton hired his own legal sharpshooter in the Monica Lewinski scandal.)
Kasowitz has represented the litigious Trump in numerous other cases, including his divorces (where he repeatedly took the Fifth), Trump University lawsuits, all of which eventually were settled out of court, and several sexual harassment lawsuits, one of which is still pending.
Put all this together — that a once manageable political embarrassment has become a full course meal of a scandal that is increasingly focused on Trump with Flynn and Manafort as the appetizers — and you might be excused for a high five or two.
Sorry, but like I said at the top, that would be premature.
Just because the laws being used to corner Trump by dredging his cesspool are working for the most part is not the same thing as saying they will result in his early departure from the Oval Office.
By design (thank you, James Madison), these checks and balances make employing the 25th Amendment or the more traditional use of impeachment extremely difficult even though Trump certainly is in a league of his own. Remember that in 228 years, only one president has resigned, two have been impeached but did not resign, and eight died in office.
Therein lies a cautionary tale, and this leads us back to Congress and specifically the House.
The likelihood of the investigations being derailed at this point is minute. It is my guess that one or more of these investigations will hit pay dirt, but even though they will confirm the acts that were committed are criminal, it would be in the political arena that the president would be brought down.
In other words, Flynn and Manafort could be nailed by a federal criminal prosecutor, but Trump . . . well, it’s complicated.
This is because by law (thank you again, Mr. Madison) any evidence of wrongdoing by Trump must be referred to the House, not a criminal prosecutor. And although it is all but certain that Trump has committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors,” that are requirements for impeachment under the Constitution, the House will take the only way out it knows.
That is the cowardly way.
Trump may yet resign, perhaps on a medical pretext, and may yet become so crazy that even his most ardent supporters — Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan — will have no choice but to invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows the vice president and congressional leaders to remove the president if he is deemed unfit.
But at this point we may have to wait until the 2018 midterm elections when the Democrats could retake the House, which (finally) would then vote for impeachment, and the Senate, as well, where an impeachment trial would then be held.
If Trump hasn’t destroyed the country by then.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on May 24, 2017, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.