Donald Trump
Credit: White House/Flickr

In the last 24 hours we’ve seen two stories of Trump throwing deranged temper tantrums related to the FBI probe. First came reporting of Trump’s petty and vicious bullying of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe upon seeing that former director James Comey had taken an FBI jet back to Washington after being fired:

The day after he fired James Comey as director of the FBI, a furious President Donald Trump called the bureau’s acting director, Andrew McCabe, demanding to know why Comey had been allowed to fly on an FBI plane from Los Angeles back to Washington after he was dismissed, according to multiple people familiar with the phone call.

McCabe told the president he hadn’t been asked to authorize Comey’s flight, but if anyone had asked, he would have approved it, three people familiar with the call recounted to NBC News.

The president was silent for a moment and then turned on McCabe, suggesting he ask his wife how it feels to be a loser — an apparent reference to a failed campaign for state office in Virginia that McCabe’s wife made in 2015.

McCabe replied, “OK, sir.” Trump then hung up the phone.

Needless to say, this is not the picture of a man who should be anywhere near diplomatic engagements or the nuclear launch codes. It’s also not the sort of man who understands that the FBI doesn’t serve at his whim, that the federal government is not his family business fief, and that law enforcement officials aren’t his personal fixers to be abused in a fit of pique.

It’s the picture a man who doesn’t understand the stature of James Comey on the hill, the consequences of setting Comey free of his own institutional restraints, or the consequences of making personal enemies of people inside the Justice Department when crimes of collusion, obstruction, and financial malfeasance are so self-evident. Trump doesn’t understand either his own legal peril, or the ways in which his intemperate actions exacerbate it.

The second story is even more currently relevant: the president was apparently furious that the Justice Department had warned against the release of the Nunes memo intended to sabotage the investigation into the collusion and obstruction charges. It doesn’t need repeating that the memo was written by Republican staffers, and that if there were anything truly damning in it instead of embarrassing misrepresentations along the lines of the “secret society” texts they would already have been leaked. Trump doesn’t know any better, because he believes whatever he sees on Fox News and doesn’t realize that the systematic attempts to undermine the FBI’s credibility are a con to keep the president’s base of support. It’s never a good idea for a president to get high on his own propaganda supply, but Trump doesn’t have enough sophistication for that—when it comes to Fox News propaganda Trump is the mark, not the scam artist.

So like any angry old Fox News-addicted uncle, Trump blew his top at the news:

President Donald Trump’s frustrations with the Russia investigation boiled over on Air Force One last week when he learned that a top Justice Department official had warned against releasing a memo that could undercut the probe, according to four people with knowledge of the matter.

Trump erupted in anger while traveling to Davos after learning that Associate Attorney General Stephen Boyd warned that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release a classified memo written by House Republican staffers. The memo outlines alleged misdeeds at the FBI and Justice Department related to the Russia investigation.

For Trump, the letter was yet another example of the Justice Department undermining him and stymieing Republican efforts to expose what the president sees as the politically motivated agenda behind Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe…

Trump warned Sessions and others they need to excel at their jobs or go down as the worst in history, the two people said.

Donald Trump has spent his entire life insulated from repercussions by his father’s money, and by an entire coterie of much more intelligent and talented people protecting him from his actions. A fixer like Roy Cohn takes care of everything for him: every woman he assaults or uses gets paid off or destroyed in the press, every business partner or contractor he burns gets pennies on the dollar or countersued, every bad investment and scam that would put a normal person into the poorhouse or worse gets taken care of through clever legal and accounting jujitsu. Trump shoots first, asks questions later, and then expects “his people” to clean up the messes he leaves behind.

The problem for Trump is that there is no fixer for the situation he is in. He famously asked “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” when the walls of the Russia investigation slowly began to close in around him, expecting some mafia man like “The Wolf” from Pulp Fiction to take care of all his problems. He expects all of this to just go away, and the job of his underlings is to make it go away. For Trump, the attorney general is supposed to protect the president and insulate him from any investigations into his wrongdoing. So is the FBI director. But that’s not their job. It’s no one’s job. The Republican Congress and the conservative media establishment are gamely doing its best, but there’s really only so much they can do. The wheels of justice continue to spin inexorably, and if the GOP Congress protects Trump from the consequences, they too will face the consequences from the voters this November.

It’s not clear how long Trump will be able to withstand the pressure. He has never been in this position before. Trump has never had to please clients, nor has he served in a volunteer organization of any note, or answered to a corporate board of directors. He has never held a position where a fixer couldn’t sweep his problems under the rug. He has never had to take accountability for anything in his life. He has always been able to skate free. What will he do when the pressure becomes too much to bear, and it becomes clear that he has no escape that comes without serious cost?

When that day comes, it will be a trial for American democracy like few before it. The public and our institutions will need to be ready.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.