Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
FBI Director Christopher Wray is forcing the Trump White House to choose between the national interest and President Donald Trump’s political hide.
Wray’s formal opposition to the release of a secret partisan memo, supported by Republicans critical of the bureau, also sets the stage for a showdown over the future of the nation’s most revered law enforcement agency which, before Trump, enjoyed longstanding support from the GOP.
Only Trump could separate the law-and-order party, as the Republicans have been known as for decades, from the FBI. He has done this as part of his larger effort to delegitimize all who have participated in various probes of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election and other violations of criminal and civil law they might uncover.
According to Politico, Trump decided in June of last year that he would attack his own administration’s Justice Department in response to the controversy over his firing of FBI director James Comey and the Robert Mueller probe. (The FBI provides resources for Mueller and the second-in-command at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, supervises him.) “President Trump has started the clock on the Rosenstein firing watch,” GOP strategist Evan Siegfried told Politico in June. “This is feeding the private discussions in the GOP about the President’s state of mind.”
And so far this year, Republicans in the House of Representatives have made clear their intentions to join the President no matter where his mind resides. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, asked his aides to write a memo criticizing the FBI’s handling of requests for a warrant related to investigating Russian election interference. This four-page document, based on reams of classified material, is widely believed to be a highly political and selective use of information intended to discredit the agency and, by extension, Mueller’s work.
Nunes entered this episode with a reputation tarnished by a misadventure that found him racing to the White House last March, in the dead of night, to supposedly “confirm what I already knew” about the supposed “wiretapping” of Trump’s phone by the previous administration. This harebrained notion was disproved and Nunes suddenly stepped away from leading his committee’s Russian work. Now he’s back, with his four-page memo, which he apparently signed without actually reading the underlying material himself.
But for his efforts to aid Trump’s campaign against the investigation of the Russia controversy, few Americans would know the name Devin Nunes. Now he’s known as the main congressional enabler of the President push-back campaign. He has been diminished by this alliance, as so many are when they go near Trump.
As a uniquely disruptive political figure, Trump has resisted fully acknowledging the seriousness of the Russian election meddling and subsequent evidence that his associates – notably his son Donald Jr., former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and attorney general Jeff Sessions – met and may have aided Russian agents. He abruptly fired Wray’s predecessor, former FBI Director James Comey.
At the center of the conflict stand the wildly unreliable and erratic Trump and special counsel Mueller, a Republican who enjoys esteem across the political spectrum. With the arrest of former Trump campaign operatives Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos, Mueller signaled the seriousness of his endeavor. Trump, who has long fumed angrily over the investigation and scandal, has responded by stepping up his campaign of denigration and disruption.
As The New York Times reported January 25, Trump actually ordered the firing of Mueller, offering thinly constructed complaints about supposed conflicts of interest, only to back off of the demand when his White House counsel threatened to resign.
Days later came a report that Trump is talking privately about the notion that the Justice Department could somehow turn the tables and prosecute Mueller. According to Howard Fineman of NBC News, a Trump adviser said, “Here’s how it would work: ‘We’re sorry, Mr. Mueller, you won’t be able to run the federal grand jury today because he has to go testify to another federal grand jury.’”
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Extreme as a direct legal attack on Mueller may seem, the prospect seems more likely when one considers that stunts like the Nunes memo and the President’s attempt to fire the special counsel last year.
Here it’s helpful to consider that Donald Trump came of age during the Nixon years, when the president proved unable to shut down an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in and ultimately resigned over the attempted coverup. And our current President was tutored in the political arts by Nixon loyalist Roger Stone, who, like others, believe Nixon shouldn’t have been impeached. (Stone has said that John Dean, the Watergate whistleblower, “perpetrated a fraud” against Nixon.)
The lesson learned by extreme Nixonites was that their guy should have fought harder. Trump, who loves to talk about himself as a fighter, isn’t making that mistake. For this reason, we should expect more of the same, including the release of the Nunes memo, the possible resignation of Christopher Wray, and a deepening crisis for the nation. All of this in service to one man’s state of mind.
Correction: An earlier version of this column cited a Politico article and said President Trump decided in mid-January that he would attack his own administration's Justice Department and FBI. In fact the article was published in June, 2017.