It's not quite the Saturday Night Massacre, but there may well be something of a slow-motion purge underway at the Justice Department, in which those in key positions whose loyalty to President Trump is less than absolute are pushed out the door. Monday we learned that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who had aroused the ire of the ever-petulant occupant of the Oval Office by being married to someone who once ran for state office as a Democrat, is stepping down. This is just the beginning.
Just last week it was reported that when McCabe became acting director of the Bureau after James Comey's firing, Trump asked him in a meeting who he voted for in 2016. It's one of those stunningly inappropriate things that would be a major scandal with any other president, but that we've gotten numb to with Trump. Apparently McCabe's answer — that he hadn't voted — wasn't good enough, just as Trump didn't get the answer he wanted from Comey when he demanded a pledge of loyalty. So McCabe too became a target, with the president posting tweets demanding that he be sacked. We also learned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire McCabe — which it isn't hard to interpret as a way for Sessions to get back in Trump's good graces, given how often Trump has complained about Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation and therefore not being able to protect Trump in the way he believes is proper. Indeed, McCabe told friends that he's leaving because of pressure Wray was applying to him.
And here's something you might have missed: When Comey began taking detailed notes about his meetings with Trump and sharing information about Trump's behavior with colleagues so a contemporaneous record of Trump's appalling behavior could be established, one of the people he reached out to was, you guessed it, Andrew McCabe. You might have missed it, but I'll bet President Trump didn't.
But wait, there's more. You may have heard about the secret memo that Trump lickspittle and House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has been circulating among his Republican colleagues, supposedly showing anti-Trump bias at the FBI. The New York Times reports that it singles out Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for approving the continuation of surveillance of former Trump adviser Carter Page, whom law enforcement and intelligence officials suspect may have been acting as an agent of the Russian government. "The reference to Mr. Rosenstein's actions in the memo," the Times notes, "indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the [Russia] inquiry."
You bet they are, and Rosenstein presents a complicated case.
He was appointed to his position by Trump, and then was apparently ordered to write a memo making a case for why Comey should be fired. Then that memo was used by the White House as the justification for the firing. Rosenstein testified to Congress that "[o]n May 8, I learned that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey and sought my advice and input." The next day, on May 9, he delivered the two-and-a-half page memo, which faulted Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email case, particularly Comey's decision to hold a press conference to criticize Clinton even though no charges would be brought against her. The White House then claimed that Trump was firing Comey because he had been recommended to do so by Rosenstein and Attorney General Sessions.
From the beginning, that was an absurd lie that nobody believed. The idea that Trump would fire the FBI director because Comey had treated Hillary Clinton unfairly was simply ludicrous, and they soon stopped mentioning it. But if Rosenstein thought he had demonstrated his membership on Team Trump, he was mistaken. Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his own contacts with the Russian ambassador while he was working on the Trump campaign, so responsibility fell to Rosenstein, the second in command. He chose Robert Mueller, whose integrity would be beyond question, to serve as special counsel. And only Rosenstein has the power to fire Mueller.
Which is just what everyone knows Trump wants to happen. Trump denied a report last week that he ordered Mueller fired in June but backed off when Don McGahn, the White House counsel, threatened to quit rather than carry out the order. But even if you believe Trump's denial, no one disputes that he would be much happier if Mueller just disappeared.
Which raises the question: Is Trump going to order Sessions to fire Rosenstein, so that a different official can be put in place to oversee the Mueller investigation, and that person can then be told to fire Mueller? That might sound like just the kind of thing that leads to impeachment, which was probably why Don McGahn was so desperate to keep it from happening. But how many times have you said, "Trump would never go that far," only to find that he would? As The Washington Post reports, "The president has told close advisers that the [Nunes] memo is starting to make people realize how the FBI and the Mueller probe are biased against him, and that it could provide him with grounds for either firing or forcing Rosenstein to leave."
I realize all this may seem confusing if you aren't immersed in the details of the Russia scandal. But think of it as a clearing of the decks within the Justice Department. Anyone who hasn't demonstrated their loyalty to Trump — and can't be counted on to protect him as the danger from the Russia scandal gets more acute — has got to go. Trump might get rid of them himself, or he might send signals to his supporters in the media and on Capitol Hill, letting them know whom they should target.
Comey is gone, McCabe is going, and Rosenstein could be next. Under this president, any conception of the Justice Department as an independent agency devoted to the rule of law is quickly disappearing.