The escalating campaign by President Donald Trump and his allies against the Russia investigation hit a new peak of intensity Monday.
First came news of the resignation of Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, after weeks of attacks by Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill and in conservative media that he was a symptom of a “deep state” conspiracy against the President.
Then the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a memo alleging abuses by the FBI of surveillance law when it used a dossier about Trump and Russia to obtain a warrant to eavesdrop on Trump campaign foreign policy aide Carter Page.
The revelations, following a flurry of developments last week that suggested special counsel Robert Mueller was nearing the end of part of his probe, sent shockwaves through Washington, underscoring the gravity of a building political crisis.
The White House insisted it had nothing to do with the sudden departure of McCabe.
But given the political heat being cranked up by Trump, GOP aides on Capitol Hill and in the pro-Trump media, it would not surprise anyone if special counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is next to go.
Though such a step would trigger political mayhem and a potential constitutional showdown that could imperil Trump’s presidency, such steps, if they happened, could be seen as the logical outcome of a pressure campaign that has raised concerns about Trump’s tendency to rage against legal norms constraining his office.
The swirl of events also comes as speculation mounts over whether Trump will testify in person to the Mueller probe, as some of his friends warn him he could be walking into a trap set by the special counsel’s team.
And in a new sign of the President’s fixation with the Russia probe, his anger boiled over as he flew to Davos, Switzerland, on Air Force One last week, after he found out that Associate Attorney General Stephen Boyd had said the release of the GOP memo about the dossier would be “extraordinarily reckless,” Bloomberg News reported Monday, citing four sources with knowledge of the matter.
Clear and consistent pattern
Events of the last year show a clear and consistent pattern by the President of demanding loyalty from law enforcement officials – including recently forced out McCabe and fired FBI chief James Comey. Trump has also publicly vented at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying he wouldn’t have picked him had he known he would recuse himself from the Russian investigation – another variation on the loyalty theme.
At the same time, the President has shown himself willing to blur the traditional firewalls between the White House and the Justice Department and the FBI, either misunderstanding, or showing disdain for, protocols observed to avoid any impression of political interference in the neutral administration of justice.
The administration has spent weeks cranking up scrutiny on career FBI and Justice Department officials, claiming the Mueller probe is biased against Trump, apparently seeking to discredit its eventual findings and perhaps to shape the political terrain ahead of any calls for impeachment proceedings.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday admitted that the President had put pressure on those in the investigation “to get it resolved” so he can go back to work she said Americans care about.
But she denied the White House had ordered McCabe’s exit.
“I can say the President wasn’t part of this decision-making process,” Sanders said.
Another building block in the apparent efforts of the administration and its allies to cast doubt on the probity of the Mueller probe could come later Monday.
Democrats have claimed the House Intelligence Committee memo misrepresents the facts and intelligence officials worry that its release could compromise classified information, though Trump is minded to approve its publication, an official familiar with the matter told CNN last week.
Republicans are adamant that the memo suggests serious problems with the use of the dossier, drawn up by former British spy Christopher Steele, which they claim was the spur for the FBI probe into alleged collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“I have read the four-page memo. What I read was very concerning. I support making it public and getting this done as soon as possible,” Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House GOP leadership, told Fox News on Monday.
The memo cites the role of McCabe and Rosenstein for their roles in overseeing aspects of the investigation, according to a source briefed on the matter.
The cresting intrigue Monday follows a flurry of sensational developments in recent days that suggest that Mueller is approaching a critical point of his investigation and that the President’s personal jeopardy could be deepening.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Trump ordered the firing of the special counsel in June. CNN reported that pressure to dismiss Mueller prompted the White House Counsel Donald McGahn to tell colleagues he would resign.
The firing never happened, but it could be relevant to Mueller’s inquiries into whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey, since it could serve as evidence of the President’s state of mind and intent in his apparent attempts to end the Russia investigation.
Trump now has Rosenstein in his crosshairs, CNN reported Friday, and has repeatedly suggested removing him, prompting advisers to warn the President off.
In McCabe’s case, Trump’s advisers highlighted the fact that the former deputy FBI director’s wife mounted a Democratic state Senate campaign in Virginia, before he took his final post with the bureau.
The Washington Post reported last week that Trump had directly asked McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election in a highly unusual move for a president toward a civil servant. CNN established that McCabe voted in the Republican primary in 2016 but did not vote in the general election.
Pressure on key officials
For some of Trump’s critics, the pattern of pressure on key officials is already sufficient to raise strong suspicions that the President, in the Comey firing and subsequent actions, is guilty of obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offense.
“On perhaps the most important question of all – whether the President of the United States committed the crime of obstruction of justice – the answer now seems clear,” Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst, wrote on Friday.
Should he go a step further and seek to fire Mueller, as he apparently recommended in June, Trump could trigger a constitutional crisis.
“I think if the President had gone through with this or tries to go through with it on a going forward basis, we’re into uncharted territory, we’re into the real question of the fundamentals of our democracy,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Friday.
“Are we still going to be a country where the rule of law prevails and that no one, even the President, is above the law?” Warner said.
Still, though it is clear the President is furious about the Russia investigation, and has demonstrably created political pressure on multiple officials linked to it, it does not follow that Mueller is destined to conclude he obstructed justice.
Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who led the investigation against President Bill Clinton, said that he did not believe Trump’s actions had demonstrated corrupt intent that would be needed to back up an obstruction finding.
“I don’t think that those who have been saying this is obstruction of justice have come forward with pervasive authority and have not addressed what I view as a fundamental question, the power of the presidency,” Starr said on ABC News “This Week” on Sunday.
Though he maintained that the President has broad jurisdiction over law enforcement officials in his administration, he did allow that any move by the President to fire Mueller would cause “Armageddon.”
Still, a case against the President that fell short of the criminal standards for an obstruction inquiry could still be forwarded to Congress for consideration of whether his conduct amounted to a high crime and misdemeanor required to trigger the political process of impeachment.
Yet given the intense skepticism of the Mueller probe and the orchestrated campaign against it that was again in evidence Monday, there must be significant doubt whether the GOP-led House would decide to move ahead.