Jules Witcover: Trump tries defiance of Mueller
WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of President Trump’s golf buddies, spelled out the risk involved for the man in the Oval Office in attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name. If Trump were to fire him from the Russian meddling investigation, Graham warned on “CNN Sunday,” it would be “the beginning of the end” of his presidency.
Graham also counseled his friend in the White House to cool down and let the investigation run its course, as public opinion polls widely indicate Americans favor. Mueller, as a former FBI director, is probably the most esteemed law enforcement official in the land among colleagues, if not among Trumpland devotees who want his scalp.
The president’s personal attack on Mueller appears part of a strategy to cast the investigation into Russian interference in our elections as an assault by alleged bad actors in the FBI who openly supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. But unlike the thin-skinned president who flies off the handle at the slightest cause, Mueller like Old Man River just keeps rolling along in quest of evidence of wrongdoing that happens to be enveloping Donald Trump.
The president seems daily more enraged at the effrontery of critics not joining in the adoration of himself by his unvarnished faithful. Like “Crooked Hillary” and “Little Marco,” Mueller is to Trump just another opponent to be trashed and discarded.
What appeared to be particularly irking to the president is that the special counsel is a functionary of what he considers “his” Justice Department under “his” attorney general, who unfortunately and inconsiderately recused himself from the investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did so on the reasonable grounds that he was once part of the Trump campaign organization.
If Sessions hadn’t done so, the president appears to believe, he could have canned Mueller long ago, a task now up to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has turned out to be another straight arrow guided by the department’s rule and regulations, without grounds to do Trump’s bidding in firing Mueller.
The fact that being president of the United States doesn’t bestow the perks and power of, for example, his new best friend Vladimir Putin in Russia, seems to be especially grating to Trump. When Putin was re-elected president recently in a typically greased contest, amid stories that it probably made him president for life, Trump promptly fired off congratulations. He has joked that maybe he ought to try for the same someday. Meanwhile, he talks of seven more years in the Oval Office, all the law allows, for now anyway.
This still being the democracy whose institutions Trump demonstrates so little respect for, or even awareness of, he continues to rail against the American law enforcement official investigating whether he and/or his political team has played fast and loose with it.
Despite the fact that Trump remains the duly elected chief of state, he hates to be reminded that he won only in the Electoral College and that about 3 million more American voters cast their ballots for Crooked Hillary than for him. And now this man Mueller in “his” own Justice Department is out to get him, so naturally Trump is lashing out at him.
The president may well be wondering why he left the anything-goes ethics of the business world for the world of politics and government, which has restrained his great talent for manipulating the rules to get what and when he wants it. If Vladimir can swing it, he wonders, why can’t I? Is it any wonder that their bromance has blossomed, to the bewilderment of so many of the rest of us?
A prominent best-seller of the 1930s was Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” which had as its conceit the creeping onset of authoritarianism in the defeat of FDR by a fictional would-be dictator preaching super-patriotism and pie in the sky. It may warrant rereading now.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.