The Russia investigation is just in the early stages but has already deeply wounded the Trump presidency, writes Julian Zelizer
And it could get worse, Zelizer says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
President Donald Trump lives in the biggest political bubble of all. His disastrous last few weeks culminated with former FBI Director James Comey delivering stinging testimony about how the President leaned on him to stop a major investigation into the administration.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey expressed his strong feeling that the President is an inveterate liar who could not be trusted. President Trump ended his brief Twitter hiatus by saying: “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication … and WOW, Comey is a leaker!”
At his press conference Friday in the Rose Garden, Trump doubled down by saying: “Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction.” Trump, who said he would testify under oath to deny Comey’s claims about their conversation, added that the testimony was an “excuse by Democrats” who lost an election “they shouldn’t have lost.” More fake news from President Trump.
Trump’s strident sense of confidence about his invulnerability in the expanding investigation is a result of the President being surrounded by weak “yes” men and women as well as being defended by a conservative media which spins every story his way.
When he turns on the television, there is at least one pundit ready to repeat the talking points that his own White House puts out. Ironically, President Trump’s skewed world view also gains support from disillusioned Democrats, still reeling from the election, who think of him like President Frank Underwood from “House of Cards,” the guy who gets away with everything.
But just because a president says he is “winning,” that doesn’t mean it’s true. The Russia-gate controversy is taking an immense toll on the administration and on the Republican Party.
One of the most revealing parts of James Comey’s written testimony was the sense that in private, Trump seems to understand that the Russia investigation is a big problem, notwithstanding his endless bluster. He asked Comey to “lift the cloud” that hovers over the White House as a result of the investigation. Unless Comey is not telling the truth, and there is no evidence that this is the case, Trump is not being straight with his own supporters.
The investigations have consumed his presidency and they are not going away any time in the near future. Trump has zero major legislative accomplishments to speak of at this point. Every time there is even a little bit of momentum for legislation, such as the House passage of the health care bill or Trump’s outline of a tax cut, more damaging information comes out of the Russia probe that distracts Congress from the business of making policy.
The President himself appears paralyzed by the controversy and has devoted little attention to anything else. The tone of his furious tweets suggests that he is very focused on this story and angry about what’s happening. Given where Republicans were in January 2017, enjoying the start of united one-party control of government and a devastated Democratic Party, the empty record is stunning.
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If approval ratings mean anything, the scandals have not helped President Trump whose numbers have been historically poor. A Quinnipiac poll recently found that 34% of voters approve of President Trump. Sixty eight percent said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about his relationship with Russia, though only 31% believed he did something illegal. Quinnipiac is not an outlier. Most polls have confirmed that the public does not see President Trump as doing a good job and they are concerned about Russia. A majority has supported the appointment of a special counsel and an independent investigation.
Even more important, Nate Silver cites evidence that his support among the base is finally slipping. He shows how there has been a significant fall in the number of people who “strongly approve” of Trump — from 30% in February (the peak) to about 21% in May. These numbers, combined with more evidence that the 2018 midterms could be a “wave” election that brings Democrats into power in both chambers, is certainly not a victory for the President, whose party is paying the costs of the chaos.
While most Republicans keep their heads buried in the sand, more nonpartisan officials are speaking up. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, hardly a fiery Democratic activist, said that Watergate “pales” in comparison to the current investigation into the Trump administration and Russia.
Comey, who many Democrats feel handed Trump the presidential victory with his announcements about the Hillary Clinton email scandal, was unequivocal in his assessment that something is profoundly wrong in this White House. The actions of Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner provided some hope that the committee will be able to conduct a genuine investigation, while special counsel Robert Mueller is by all accounts a tough prosecutor who will do everything needed to get to the bottom of this story.
It is important to remember that Watergate took a long time to gestate. The scandal started with the break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972 and didn’t end until President Nixon resigned in August 1974, facing impeachment. The famous “smoking gun” tape didn’t come until the very end of the process, after Congress and prosecutors had slowly built a strong case and discovered what had taken place in Nixon’s broken White House.
Today, in our breaking news culture, we expect everything to be resolved within days. That’s not how this works. Yet the controversy over Russia has already taken on rather significant proportions very early into this presidency.
Comey’s testimony was damning. He laid out the case for obstruction of justice, even if he said that was not for him to decide. He also offered a picture of a president who doesn’t know the boundaries of power.
Given where President Trump is in his term, and the damage the Republicans can easily face as a result of the Russia investigation, Trump’s claim of victory shows that it is the President who is living in the bubble — his own imagination.