Do we have a constitutional crisis now?

The Thinker by Rodin

Last November before Donald Trump assumed office I opined that it wouldn’t be long before we had a constitutional crisis. It wasn’t a hard call to make and I was hardly alone is predicting how his administration was likely to unfold. Tuesday’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey though seemed to suggest to many that our constitutional crisis has at last arrived.

Since taking office, Trump has fired three prominent officials with Comey being the latest. All firings relate to potential collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. First up was Sally Yates, who Trump fired on January 30th. She was the acting Attorney General at the time, a holdover from the Obama administration but actually an acting Attorney General for a time during the Bush administration. She had the dubious job of running the department until Jeff Sessions was confirmed.

We learned from her testimony last week that less than a week into the Trump administration she urgently warned the White House counsel that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, had lied to Vice President Pence and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. She was fired supposedly for refusing to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration in court but that it came days after this warning to Trump’s counsel seems more than coincidental.

Next was Michael Flynn. He lasted until February 13; eighteen days after Yates first discreetly sounded the alarm. There were so many red flags around Flynn even before he joined the White House it’s amazing that Trump would be so clueless as to pick him. He had failed to register as a foreign agent even though he earned millions working with Russian interests in areas as sensitive as Russian infiltration into eastern Ukraine. President Obama fired him for bad judgment while director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Moreover Obama specifically warned Trump not to hire him. Now we also know that Sally Yates warned the White House as well. Interesting.

And now it’s FBI Director James Comey’s turn. He was fired allegedly because of his handling of the Clinton emails, handling that Trump specifically approved of and cheered on during the campaign. A long report by the Washington Post yesterday makes clear that Trump’s real motivation was that Comey was looking into connections between Trump and the Russian government. He wanted Comey to be looking into White House leaks instead. We also learned yesterday from the Post that Comey had petitioned the Justice Department for additional resources for the probe shortly before being fired.

So there have been three prominent firings by Trump so far and all were key actors involved in exposing potential Trump-Russian connections. It’s getting hard for anyone to credibly claim these actions don’t amount to obstruction of justice. This is why Democrats in particular want an independent special prosecutor to thoroughly investigate these allegations. Comey’s removal certainly slows any investigation. His replacement may stop the investigation altogether.

And who gets to nominate his replacement? Trump, of course, who will seek guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions was apparently instrumental in his firing, despite supposedly having recused himself from all matters related to Trump’s Russian connections.

What’s amazing is how brazen all of this is. Those of us with long memories will recall President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. Nixon first ordered his attorney general Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, an independent prosecutor tasked to investigate Watergate. Richardson resigned instead. Nixon then ordered deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus to do it, who also resigned. Next in line was Robert Bork (who was later nominated to be a Supreme Court justice). Bork did the deed and it probably cost him a seat on the court. A federal judge eventually determined that Cox’s firing was illegal. Just two weeks after the “massacre” Nixon resigned. No doubt many Americans are hoping Trump will follow Nixon’s timeline.

Nixon was at least politically savvy. One thing that is abundantly clear about Trump is that he is not. Moreover, with a few exceptions he’s populated his administration with people of similar disqualifications. The few with qualifications (Pence and Priebus) don’t seem to have the courage or ability to get Trump to weigh the political costs of his actions. This of course exacerbates Trump’s problems, giving the impression that he is digging his own political grave. His naivety is pretty staggering and he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Then there is the optics. The day after firing Comey he invited the Russian foreign minister, Russian ambassador and Nixon’s controversial secretary of state Henry Kissinger to the White House!

Forty years ago we weathered a similar crisis. It’s unclear whether we will this time. It all depends on the strength of character of key Republicans in Congress. In the 1970s Republicans were capable of putting country above party. The way these things usually evolve gives me hope, because when the politics of defending and excusing Trump become untenable for Republicans own reelection, tables can turn quickly. There is no consensus yet but doubtless many Republicans are weighing their own political calculations on when to jump ship. Forty years ago though districts were not so heavily gerrymandered. This suggests that there are more than two weeks left in a Trump administration.

It’s clear to me that by trying to make his political problems go away through firing people, Trump only makes them worse. If there were nothing to Trump-Russia connections then he would have no reason to be concerned, as nothing would tie him to it. Clearly though there is, which suggests to me that Trump eventually will suffer Nixon’s fate. Given his stubbornness, it may take impeachment, conviction and bodily removal by the Secret Service. In a way I’m hoping for the latter. Watching his bloated form being tossed outside the front gate of the White House would be quite a site for the ages.