Trump's war on Justice
Why the president continues to lash out at his own Justice Department
Last week, President Trump told The New York Times that when it came to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the Russia scandal, "I think he's going to be fair." This was widely misinterpreted as being at odds with the broader Republican message that Mueller is leading an out-of-control probe staffed by maniacal anti-Trump partisans. It wasn't that at all. For Trump, a "fair" investigation is one that exonerates him, just as when he whines about how he's being treated unfairly by the media, he means that they aren't praising him in the fulsome manner he believes he deserves. More than anything else, predicting Mueller would be "fair" to him was an expression of Trump's typical confidence that he'll triumph in the end.
But there's a long way between here and there, and as the investigation proceeds Trump is going to ask members of his party to follow him to some uncomfortable places. At the very least, the president who promised to bring back "law and order" will want his followers to demean and discredit the Justice Department, the FBI, and any other entity that should happen to get in his way.
On Tuesday, Trump offered up this absurdist performance art masterpiece of a tweet:
It isn't worth working too hard to unravel that tossed salad of bizarre claims; it's enough to understand that Trump continues to demand the prosecution of his political opponents. Perhaps more importantly, the "Deep State Justice Dept" line is a tipoff that Trump is getting his perspective from a right-wing media that relentlessly feeds his paranoia. For them, the "deep state" represents a secret bureaucratic apparatus engaged in a conspiracy to thwart Trump's policies and destroy his presidency, a conspiracy that apparently includes a slate of people Trump appointed and the FBI itself.
The closer the probe gets to Trump, the more it has to be attacked. This weekend we learned that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia began when the Australian government alerted our government that Trump flunky George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat "during a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016" that the Russians had damaging information on Hillary Clinton drawn from emails. In other words, the FBI wasn't on the case until someone from the Trump campaign forced them to look into it.
The idea that Papadopoulos was blabbing to an Australian diplomat in a bar but didn't share his information with the campaign itself is virtually impossible to believe, which would mean that the campaign knew the Russians were hacking the Democrats, but didn't themselves call the FBI when they found out about it. You can be sure that Mueller will be asking why, as should we all.
In any case, the provenance of the FBI investigation explodes the claim some on the right — including Trump himself — had been making before now, that the entire investigation is illegitimate because it supposedly originated with the opposition research "dossier" assembled by a former British intelligence agent. "FBI TAINTED," Trump recently tweeted after getting riled up by a segment about the dossier on Fox & Friends. "And they used this Crooked Hillary pile of garbage as the basis for going after the Trump Campaign!"
Well no, they didn't — not to mention the fact that they weren't "going after the Trump Campaign," they were investigating whether a hostile foreign power was meddling in an American presidential election. But I suppose that if you think that any investigation into that question is proof of anti-Trump bias, you'd be willing to countenance all manner of attacks on federal law enforcement.
I'm sure there are more than a few elected Republicans who are deeply uneasy with the fact that so many of their ideological compatriots are vilifying the FBI and the Justice Department. If you're one of them, and you don't want to be one of those screaming for a "purge" of those in government who are insufficiently loyal to Trump (and yes, one congressman actually used that word), up until now it hasn't been too hard to dodge questions on the scandal. You could just say that we should let the investigation run its course and then address the findings, whatever they turn out to be.
But you can only say that for so long. With each new revelation that implicates the campaign and perhaps Trump himself, there will be an intense reaction from Trump's defenders to vilify the investigators. Every Republican will have to decide how far they're willing to go to stand by an increasingly desperate president. As they make that decision, they'll reveal a great deal about themselves.