By firing James Comey as F.B.I. director, President Trump set in motion the appointment Wednesday evening of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Mueller is a Trump nightmare: a pro who ran the F.B.I. for 12 years and is broadly respected by both parties in Washington for his competence and integrity. If Trump thought he was removing a thorn by firing Comey, he now faces a grove of thistles.
One crucial lesson here: Pressure matters. It was public opinion that stalled the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, and it is public opinion in part that will ensure the integrity of this investigation.
While the Justice Department didn’t precisely cave to polls, it truly does matter that a majority of Americans want this cloud over our presidency investigated and removed; legal decisions unfold in a political context. Keep up that pressure, for the coming months may be particularly dangerous.
We don’t, of course, know what Mueller will find, and Trump has reiterated his denial of collusion with the Kremlin. Some Democrats seem to assume an investigation will prove a secret deal between Trump and Vladimir Putin, but many smart people I speak to wonder if it will end up more gray. They foresee evidence of collusion by Trump’s aides, and of financial pathways linking Moscow to Trump and his campaign, but perhaps no proof of a quid pro quo involving Trump himself.
The aides most at risk may be Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, and NBC is reporting that multiple subpoenas have been issued for records involving them.
In addition, The Washington Post reported Wednesday on a remarkable recording in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared last June that he believed that Putin finances Trump. Talking with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders, McCarthy said, “I think Putin pays” Trump. When people laughed, McCarthy quickly added, “Swear to God!”
Ryan swore those present to secrecy. “No leaks,” Ryan said. “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
When The Post asked Ryan and McCarthy about the statements, their offices flatly denied them. Informed that The Post had a recording, they backtracked and suggested it was a joke.
If it’s not humor, this is extraordinary: The Republican House leadership suggested that Putin was keeping Trump on his payroll and that this must be kept secret — even as they thundered about Hillary Clinton’s emails!
(An aside: Thank God for the battle unfolding between The Washington Post and The New York Times. This is the best kind of newspaper war, keeping America straight. I’ve been very critical of media coverage of the presidential campaign, but the rigorous coverage of Trump since he took office has made me proud to be a journalist. And thanks to all those citizens who have subscribed to news outlets in recent months, recognizing that subscriptions are the price for a democracy.)
Yet there are dangers ahead. One is that America will be incapacitated and paralyzed by Mueller’s investigation and the suspicions — this partly explains the stock market’s big fall on Wednesday — and foreign powers may take advantage of this to undertake their own mischief. I would worry about Russia in both Ukraine and the Baltic countries, and we must make clear that we will work with allies to respond in kind.
Another danger is the risk of an erratic, embattled, paranoid leader at home who feels that he may be going down the tubes anyway. In domestic policy, presidents are constrained by Congress and the courts about what damage they can cause, but in foreign policy a president has a largely free hand — and the ability to launch nuclear strikes that would pretty much destroy the world.
In 1974, as Richard Nixon’s presidency was collapsing, he was drinking heavily and aides worried that he was becoming unstable. Fearing what might go wrong, Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, secretly instructed the military not to carry out any White House order to use nuclear weapons unless confirmed by him or Henry Kissinger.
This was unconstitutional. And wise.
Schlesinger also prepared secret plans to deploy troops in Washington in the event of problems with the presidential succession.
We don’t know how Trump will respond in the coming months, and let’s all hope for smooth sailing. But as with Schlesinger’s steps, it’s wise to be prepared.
There have been calls for Trump aides to resign rather than ruin their reputations, but I hope the grown-ups — H. R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, Dina Powell, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson — grit their teeth and stick it out. The White House has never needed more adult supervision.
The cabinet has the constitutional power to remove a president by majority vote under the 25th Amendment (if the president protests, this must be confirmed by two-thirds of each chamber of Congress). Such a vote is unlikely, but in the event of a crisis like the one Schlesinger envisioned, it would be essential.
I hope that cabinet members are keeping one another’s cellphone numbers handy in case an emergency meeting becomes necessary for our nation.