Donald Trump won the White House by flouting political norms and is determined to break the mold of the presidency.
But his escalating battle with his own Justice Department and his refusal to accept the historic boundaries of executive power are leading the nation onto the most treacherous constitutional ground so far of his term.
Trump on Monday delivered his order for an inquiry into claims that the FBI infiltrated a “spy” into his campaign – first touted in conservative media – to the bureau’s director, Christopher Wray, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in an Oval Office meeting.
In a deft maneuver, Rosenstein may have defused Trump’s fury for now by asking the department’s inspector general to look into the President’s claim, and top Justice Department officials will share highly classified information with lawmakers related to the Russia investigation.
But the fact the conversation took place at all reflects the extraordinary times in Trump’s Washington – when a President has turned on his own Justice Department and is exhorting his loyal political followers to do the same in a way that can only provoke a greater confrontation.
Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency under presidents of both parties, said Trump may technically have been within his rights – but that he found the events of recent days “a little scary.”
“Our President is more limited by norms than he is (by the) Constitution or law. It is the traditions of the office that keep the President, I think, in his lane. And one of those norms is the independence of the judiciary,” Hayden said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
Trump “has stepped so far beyond these norms that … people lose confidence in the independence of the judiciary, which frankly is our only off-ramp from this overhang currently over the entire nation,” he said, referring to the Russia investigation.
Among extraordinary questions that seem to be up in the air are whether the President is using his power to subvert an investigation into his own alleged misconduct.
Given his furious attacks on former President Barack Obama and his senior intelligence chiefs, it also seems possible that a sitting President could use the weight of his office to launch investigations into his political enemies – an unheard-of step.
Trump – who exacerbated the crisis with a weekend of rampant tweeting – may be mollified for now by Rosenstein’s move.
But given his incessant pressure on the Justice Department and the FBI, it’s almost certain the showdown will flare up again soon. In fact it’s in Trump’s interests to light the fire.
In an extraordinary step on Monday, the Trump sent out a campaign blast email to his supporters calling on them to sign a petition to force an investigation into “whether Obama’s FBI and DOJ infiltrated or surveilled our campaign for political purposes.”
“This could be the greatest political scandal in American history,” the email, signed by Trump, blared in block capitals.
The email may have been the most blatant sign yet of how Trump and his allies are building a political campaign to tarnish special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, apparently designed to discredit any eventual findings of wrongdoing by the President.
Democrats immediately blasted the move as a symptom of a President raging out of control.
“That he would issue such an absurd and abusive demand based on no evidence shows just how little regard the President has for the rule of law,” said Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, of New York. “President Trump seems to have the terribly misguided view that the Department of Justice is there to protect his political interests and prosecute his enemies.”
Even some of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill are uncomfortable with his latest turn.
Utah’s GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch told CNN’s Manu Raju that “the question is whether it’s advisable or not.”
“You know, the Justice Department has been a pretty honest department all these years. As far as I’m concerned, he’s got to leave it up to the Justice Department,” Hatch said.
CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that a loose and informal group of Trump advisers outside the White House have been pushing the President to attack Rosenstein and to frame him as part of a “deep state” plot against the White House.
The campaign is using Trump-friendly media and the President to force Rosenstein to reveal details about the investigation that both the Justice Department and FBI do not want disclosed.
CNN has reported that the FBI did not insert an informant into the Trump campaign.
Rather, the use of an asset is standard practice in counterintelligence operations – in this case it was likely intended to gather information from campaign advisers who may have been the targets of a Russian espionage operation.
The fact that there is no evidence that the FBI, the Justice Department or senior Obama officials came up with a “spy” scheme doesn’t matter in this context – this is an active political campaign rather than a legal defense to the Mueller investigation.
“We are eroding the reality and the appearance of the independence of the judiciary and the Department of Justice and the special counsel,” Hayden said.
“That just can’t lead to a good place.”