WASHINGTON -- Stop waiting for the constitutional crisis that President Donald Trump is sure to provoke. It’s here.
On Sunday, via Twitter, Trump demanded that the Justice Department concoct a transparently political investigation, with the aim of smearing veteran professionals at Justice and the FBI and also throwing mud at the previous administration. Trump’s only rational goal is casting doubt on the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, which appears to be closing in.
Trump’s power play is a gross misuse of his presidential authority and a dangerous departure from long-standing norms. Strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin use their justice systems to punish enemies and deflect attention from their own crimes. Presidents of the United States do not -- or did not, until Sunday’s tweet:
“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes -- and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
Rather than push back and defend the rule of law, Justice tried to mollify the president by at least appearing to give him what he wants. The Republican leadership in Congress has been silent as a mouse. This is how uncrossable lines are crossed.
The pretext Trump seized on is the revelation that a longtime FBI and CIA informant, described as a retired college professor, made contact with three Trump campaign associates before the election as part of the FBI’s initial investigation into Russian meddling.
With the full-throated backing of right-wing media, Trump has described this person as a “spy” who was “implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president.” This claim is completely unsupported by the facts as we know them. Trump wants you to believe a lie.
The informant was not imbedded or implanted or otherwise inserted into the campaign. He was asked to contact several campaign figures whose names had already surfaced in the FBI’s counterintelligence probe. It would have been an appalling dereliction of duty not to take a look at Trump advisers with Russia ties, such as Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, at a time when the outlines of a Russian campaign to influence the election were emerging.
Trump claims this is the nation’s “all time biggest political scandal” because, he alleges, Justice Department officials and the FBI used a “spy” to try to “frame” him and his campaign, in an effort to boost his opponent Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning the election. This conspiracy theory has so many holes that it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with the glaringly obvious: If the aim was to make Trump lose, why wasn’t all the known information about the Trump campaign’s Russia connections leaked before the election, when it might have had some impact?
The truth appears to be precisely the opposite of what Trump says, which is not uncommon. The record suggests that Justice and the FBI were so uncomfortable investigating a presidential campaign in the weeks and months before an election that they tiptoed around promising lines of inquiry rather than appear to be taking a side. The FBI director at the time was James Comey, and while we heard plenty about Clinton’s emails before the vote, we had no idea that such a mature investigation of the Trump campaign was underway.
Now that the Mueller probe has bored into Trump’s inner circle -- and federal authorities have raided the homes and office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen -- the president appears to be in a panic. The question is whether he sees this “spy” nonsense as a way to discredit Mueller’s eventual findings, or as a pretext for trying to end the investigation with a bloody purge akin to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.”
The Justice Department answered Trump’s tweeted demand by announcing that an existing investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general will now “include determining whether there was any impropriety or political motivation” by the FBI. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may hope that is enough to avoid a showdown. I fear he is wrong.
None of this is normal or acceptable. One of the bedrock principles of our system of government is that no one is above the law, not even the president. But a gutless Congress has refused, so far, to protect this sacred inheritance.
Trump is determined to use the Justice Department and the FBI to punish those he sees as political enemies. This is a crisis, and it will get worse.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.