Had President Donald Trump been successful in launching prosecutions against Hillary Clinton and James Comey, it could have spelled the end of his presidency, as a clear-cut abuse of power.
It never happened, apparently thwarted by then-White House Counsel Don McGahn and other senior officials. But that does not mean this is a crisis dodged for Trump and he is now free from fresh legal and political jeopardy. Quite the reverse.
At the very least, the latest developments underline how Trump’s senior subordinates may have shielded a President unschooled in constitutional norms from disastrous steps that could have put his presidency in peril.
And it leaves anyone on the outside wondering what other potential disasters top officials like McGahn, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein might have prevented.
They also raise questions about the capacity of a now-understaffed White House and legal counsel’s operation to protect the President from current or future transgressions.
It will be impossible to confirm, given the habitual silence from the special counsel’s office, but the revelations hint at the possibility that Robert Mueller knows much more about what went on in the corridors of the West Wing than has been publicly revealed.
That will play into rising tensions in Washington amid expectations that the endgame of Mueller’s probe is in sight and speculation about possible indictments targeting Trump world and the content of his final report.
Bombshell reports by CNN and The New York Times about the President’s intentions emerged on another surreal day in Washington that saw shocking disclosures about Ivanka Trump’s emails and a huge foreign policy pivot over Saudi Arabia.
They will bolster perceptions that Trump views the Justice Department as an instrument of his personal power rather than an insulated government department responsible for the neutral administration of justice.
CNN reported Tuesday that the President, on multiple occasions, asked Rosenstein and Matt Whitaker, who was then chief of staff to the attorney general, how they were doing in investigating Clinton.
Trump had forecast his intentions
Earlier, The New York Times reported that Trump had asked McGahn to get the Justice Department to prosecute Clinton and fired FBI Director Comey but that he had been rebuffed.
The paper, lifting the lid on extreme pressure faced by top law enforcement officials in the US government, also said Trump had repeatedly criticized FBI Director Christopher Wray for failing to more aggressively investigate Clinton, calling him weak.
It is not surprising that Trump would call for such prosecutions. He has frequently said as much on the campaign trail and on Twitter and beamed as his crowds chanted “lock her up,” referring to his 2016 election foe.
But that he would actually believe he has the power to follow through on his demands and such action would be politically acceptable is the most alarming takeaway from the reports.
A prosecution of Clinton – possibly over her private email server or an Obama-era uranium deal struck with Russia, both while she was secretary of state – would have challenged the fundamentals of the political system itself. American democracy since George Washington, the first president, has been assured by the peaceful transfer of power between often bitter rivals. In a saga that became embroiled in the 2016 election, the FBI investigated Clinton’s email use, but declined to recommend charges.
Mobilizing the government’s prosecutorial powers against Comey would represent a vindictive swipe against a political enemy, a worrying sign in itself.
But it could also have led Trump onto perilous legal ground because he fired Comey and then told NBC News he had done so because of the Russia investigation – which Comey was then leading – raising concerns that the President had obstructed justice.
The dismissal made the former FBI director a key witness in the probe, which was taken over by Mueller shortly after Comey was forced out. Using the federal government to target such a witness would risk playing into the obstruction of justice case that Mueller is investigating, since it could offer evidence for the question of whether the President had acted with malicious intent.
Josh Campbell, who served as an aide to Comey at the FBI and is now a CNN analyst, said his former boss was shaking his head at reports that the President wanted the Justice Department to investigate him.
“This is what had him worried then. This is what he’s been so vocal about now and speaking out,” Campbell said on “Anderson Cooper 360.”
Comey wrote in his book “A Higher Loyalty,” which came out earlier this year, that Trump often reminded him of a mafia boss and sent him back to his days prosecuting the mob, especially with the President’s demands for personal loyalty.
Renewed scrutiny of Matt Whitaker
The latest revelations also cast new scrutiny on Whitaker, who is now acting attorney general, after Trump fired Sessions.
Whitaker’s elevation, and past criticism of the Mueller probe, sparked concerns that he was put in place to thwart the Russia investigation.
A source told CNN’s Pamela Brown that Whitaker, in his former role, came to meetings with Trump prepared to answer how the Justice Department was pursuing investigations against the Clinton Foundation and on the Uranium One issue, over a mining company whose sale to Russia’s atomic energy agency had been approved by the Obama administration while Clinton was secretary of state.
The source said Whitaker tried to appease the President and there was no sign that he had crossed a line.
Whitaker is now in a role in which he oversees the Mueller probe, and thus could face intense pressure from a President who has made no secret of his disdain for an investigation he has called a “witch hunt.”
When Trump first requested the investigations in April, McGahn told the President he could not compel the Justice Department to prosecute people, the Times said. The paper also reported that McGahn had gone so far as to have White House lawyers draft a memo listing the consequences of such a request.
In many ways, the latest reports underline how Trump, a neophyte in Washington when he was inaugurated in January 2017, does not appreciate or respect normal boundaries between the White House and Justice Department.
They also suggest how if he is not constrained, the President could accidentally stumble into a position that contravenes the Constitution and puts his presidency in jeopardy.
That possibility seems to be exacerbated by Trump’s increasing self-confidence in a White House that may be about to be deprived of many remaining restraining influences in a government reshuffle.
Tuesday’s reports recalled an exchange in a Clinton/Trump presidential debate in 2016, when the Democratic nominee remarked that it was good that someone with her rival’s temperament wasn’t running the country.
“Because you would be in jail,” Trump replied.