Can Trump's battalion of buffoons really defeat the FBI?
When the GOP sends out people to dismantle the Russia investigation, they aren't sending their best
In 1962, as the hapless New York Mets headed for yet another loss, their manager Casey Stengel supposedly cried out, "Can't anybody here play this game?" Which may be what President Trump is asking himself as he watches the battalion of buffoons charged with protecting him from the Russia investigation tripping all over themselves as they scuttle around Washington trying to make the whole thing go away.
Or that would be what he would ask, were Trump not himself the biggest fool of all. For all we know, he may think they're doing a bang-up job.
But to quote a certain someone, when the GOP sends out people to dismantle the case against Trump, they aren't sending their best. You only have to look at Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who is engaged in an extended clown routine over a four-page memo he had staffers prepare, supposedly proving that the FBI is the site of a nefarious anti-Trump conspiracy. With the help of his Republican colleagues and an eager conservative media, Nunes has built the memo up to be an earth-shaking blockbuster, raising expectations beyond what can possibly be fulfilled. And according to the committee's ranking Democrat, after the committee voted on party lines to release it to the public, Nunes made alterations to it before giving it to the White House, apparently thinking no one would notice; that might mean they'd have to vote all over again to release his new version. It may not be surprising that Nunes' hometown paper calls him "Trump's stooge" and says his performance "has been nothing short of embarrassing."
The heart of the memo is apparently the claim that in obtaining a FISA warrant to surveil sometime Trump adviser Carter Page — who had a history of sketchy contacts with Russian intelligence operatives — the Justice Department might have included in its presentation to the judge information obtained from a dossier created by a former British intelligence officer working on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Why exactly this is supposed to make Special Counsel Robert Mueller's entire investigation collapse is unclear.
But Trump, master strategist that he is, seems to think that's exactly what will happen, and he's reportedly hoping to use the memo as a pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation. The Washington Post reports that "the president has told advisers the memo might make people realize how the FBI and Mueller are biased against him, and that could give him reason to force Rosenstein out." Rosenstein could then presumably be replaced with someone more compliant, who would then be told to fire Mueller.
A brilliant stratagem. It's not like firing Rosenstein so his replacement would fire Mueller, as direct a repeat of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre as one could imagine, would cause controversy or anything.
We should note that not everyone around Trump is a complete idiot. Indeed, at some critical moments, some of his aides have had the sense to try to save him from his own worst impulses. The New York Times reported that when Trump ordered Mueller fired in a fit of rage last summer, White House Counsel Don McGahn was so flabbergasted he threatened to resign, causing Trump to briefly return to reality.
But that is not a place Donald Trump ever resides for long. I'm fairly certain that the reason his lawyers are desperate to keep him from sitting down to answer Mueller's questions isn't that they think he's guilty (though he may be), but that you never know what dumb thing he'll say to indict himself. After all, we're talking about someone who went on national television and volunteered that he fired the director of the FBI in order to quash the Russia investigation, which was for all intents and purposes an admission that he had committed obstruction of justice.
So yes, in Trump's Washington the stupid starts at the top. But one might suspect that in the end, it will be only the facts that matter. Either Mueller will uncover hard evidence that crimes were committed, or he won't (though he has already obtained two guilty pleas). Either that evidence will show that there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, or it won't. No scandal-management strategy, whether shrewd or blockheaded, will make that much difference one way or the other.
That may be true — but only up to a point, and only if the facts serve more to exonerate the president than to indict him. If Mueller can't make his case, Democratic voters may continue to suspect that Trump got away with something, but the scandal's importance will likely fade. You can't make a truly epic scandal out of nothing, as the GOP could tell you. After all, they tried their damnedest for the eight years of the Obama presidency — including seven separate congressional investigations into Benghazi — and still couldn't come up with the villainous Obama administration malfeasance they were sure awaited around the next subpoena.
It's when the president really is guilty that everything's up in the air. Think of Watergate. The history of that most extraordinary scandal reveals that there were points over and over again where Nixon could have gotten away with it, had things only gone differently and different decisions been made. What if that security guard hadn't caught the burglars? What if John Dean hadn't decided to tell what he knew? What if at the first sign of trouble, Nixon had destroyed the tapes he had been making of his White House conversations?
That decision alone, criminal though it would have been, would probably have saved Nixon's presidency. It wasn't until the tapes became public in all their horrific glory that Nixon's party began to abandon him, impeachment proceedings began, and he was convinced that the game was up. No tapes, no impeachment, no resignation.
If Mueller is able to demonstrate genuine criminality on Trump's part, that's when the White House will need all its intelligence and acumen to keep his presidency from imploding. If it can keep Republicans in line, Trump could avoid impeachment (or at least avoid conviction in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds majority). Even setting that prospect aside, they and their allies will have to be awfully clever to keep the Russia scandal from swallowing this presidency whole.
Do you think they're up to it?