Standing on the Edge of Despotism

Do you remember that time during one of the presidential debates when Trump said that he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton and then suggested that if he was elected she would end up in jail?

It appears that perhaps he’s learned a bit about that since he arrived in the Oval Office. Here’s what he said during an interview with radio host Larry O’Connor.

“The saddest thing is, because I am the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by that. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her dossier, and the kind of money — I don’t know, is it possible that they paid $12.4 million for the dossier, which is total phony, fake, fraud and how is it used?

“It’s very discouraging to me. I’ll be honest, I’m very unhappy with it, that the Justice Department isn’t going — maybe they are but you know as President, and I think you understand this, as a President you’re not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something and at some point, maybe we are gonna all have it out.”

In a Twitter storm, Benjamin Wittes suggests that this is actually a fabulous tribute to the men and women of the DOJ and the FBI.

The President is saying that he would like to interfere in ongoing investigations. He is saying that he would like to order up investigations of his political opponents. He is announcing that he is a corrupt actor who does not believe in the rule of law…And yet, he is “frustrated.” Why?…It’s because the norm of independent law enforcement—which he is menacing—is actually strong enough to constrain him—at least right now. It’s strong enough that he can fulminate all he wants about investigating Clinton and still Mueller does his job, and the FBI does its job, and the men and women of the DOJ do their jobs, and none of their jobs, as our democratic polity has determined them, is to fulfill his undemocratic ambitions to loose investigators on people he doesn’t like and to have the Justice Department protect him. It’s a stunning statement of presidential constraint: A president actually saying that he aspires to corrupt interference with law enforcement and can’t pull it off. Let it warm your heart. It sure warms mine.

I wholeheartedly agree. There is precious little comfort to be found in politics these days. But the fact that the norm of independent law enforcement is constraining this president’s corruption is heartwarming.

There are, of course, caveats. Notice the qualifier Wittes uses: “at least right now.” Also notice that Trump ended his diatribe to O’Connor by saying, “at some point, maybe we are gonna all have it out.” Over the last few days, he’s become increasingly strident. For example, he:

  • called our justice system a joke and a laughing stock
  • called for the death penalty for someone who has not stepped foot inside a court room yet
  • called for the Justice Department (and FBI) to investigate Clinton
  • applauded Tucker Carlson’s conspiracy-mongering about supposed FBI incompetence

All of that is an extension of the coordinated attack on the FBI that began last week.

I realize that all any Republican can think about these days is tax cuts. But there are times when I wonder whether they hear, or even care, that this president seems increasingly obsessed with this frustration and that we are probably edging closer to the prospect of him deciding that he wants to “have it out.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the closer Robert Mueller and his team get to an answer on whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, the more likely it is that the “have it out” scenario gets triggered. In other words, right now we are teetering on the edge of despotism—with the president threatening to go there. Are Republicans content to wait until Trump steps off that precipice to figure out what comes next?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.