This was always the main question: Would Donald Trump move beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?
By any reasonable standard, we now have an answer.
Trump’s official rationale for firing FBI Director James Comey – that the president was suddenly seized with outrage at the shocking treatment of Hillary Clinton by the FBI during the election – is false in a typically Trump-like way. It requires his supporters to demonstrate their loyalty by defending the indefensible. This is apparently the manner in which Trump identifies true believers. They must be willing, when instructed, to say that 2+2 = 5. On cable television.
In fact, according to media accounts, Trump has been in a spittle-flinging rage since Comey’s March 20 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, in which he confirmed the existence of an investigation of Russian influence on Trump’s inner circle. On May 2, Trump tweeted that the “Trump/Russia story” is “phony.” On May 9, Trump fired Comey. The president removed a perceived threat, threw an active FBI investigation into chaos and raised the prospect of a Trump stooge being appointed in Comey’s place. (The correct answer is 4.)
All this is consistent with – even mandated by – Trump’s contempt for institutions. He has called the FBI investigation process “rigged.” If the system is dirty, only a fool would not play by the same rules. This is the logic of conspiratorial disdain for government. An independent, nonpolitical FBI? What a joke. It is all political. And politics is power. And power is making people do what you want, or destroying those who get in your way. The Gospel according to Nixon.
It is dangerous to have a leader with disdain for the law. It is also dangerous to have a leader who believes that anything legal is permissible. Trump’s firing of Comey was legal. It also violated a democratic norm – a proper presidential deference for an ongoing investigation and the independence of law enforcement. There is no evidence that such considerations even occur to Trump. In their place: What kind of sucker would not press all his advantages?
Republicans often talk of judicial restraint; less, recently, of presidential restraint. Presidential limits are often found in norms, not laws – what Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable.”
But Trump seems to take pleasure in throwing acid into the face of convention. In his calls to lock up his electoral opponent; in his wink and a nod toward violence at his rallies; in his groundless accusations of being spied upon by his predecessor; in his Twitter taunting of congressional leaders; in his bold and obvious lies; in his dehumanization of migrants and refugees. Grace, dignity, empathy, integrity and kindness are stripped away, leaving the emperor naked but incapable of shame. Trump is the spendthrift of our public character, squandering an inheritance he does not understand or value.
There is a certain power in shamelessness. It is amazing what our democracy has, so far, allowed Trump to get away with, giving only a grimace, a laugh or a shrug. But this tolerance is about to be tested.
If Trump selects a political crony – of the Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie variety – to head the FBI, the integrity of federal law enforcement and the rule of law will be under direct assault. Such a nomination, again, would not be illegal. But such a bold, banana-republic-style power play by the president – which could only be interpreted as an attempt to quash the Russian influence investigation – would be properly viewed as a constitutional crisis. And the historical spotlight would burn hot on Republican legislators.
Leadership is unlikely to emerge among House Republicans, given the example of sycophancy toward Trump set by Speaker Paul Ryan. The Senate is where the nomination battle – and the battle for the rule of law – will take place. So far, many GOP senators have taken a “wait and see” attitude toward preserving the integrity of federal law enforcement. A largely partisan vote to confirm a Trump loyalist would open the city gates to the ruthless, the shameless and the lawless.
Historical parallels to the Nixon era can be strained. But it is worth listening to Richard Nixon in a reflective moment: “So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice, because over the years you have become fascinated by how close you can walk without losing your balance.”
Donald Trump is dancing along the precipice. But his balance is precarious.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.