Ever since Donald Trump’s election last November, some of us cast-iron libtards have been cracking wise about “Seven Days in May,” the 1964 thriller that featured Pentagon honcho Burt Lancaster plotting a coup against an unpopular POTUS. (The joke was that this time we’d be rooting for Lancaster to succeed.) And now, guess what? It’s May.
Right on schedule, all hell is breaking loose in Washington, D.C.—and just in time for Fox News founder Roger Ailes’s stunned, flatulent arrival in Satan’s fiery pit, too.
Not that what’s going on looks much like a coup to anyone who respects the rule of law. Unless, that is, you count the botched one President Donald Trump himself tried to stage against the U.S. Constitution when he fired FBI director James Comey on May 9. Any doubt he’d done so because he wanted to squelch the Bureau’s Russiagate investigation evaporated once Trump basically admitted as much to NBC’s Lester Holt, bollixing the White House’s own cover story. Then Trump tried to intimidate the man he’d just fired (not a good move) by intimating that he had their conversations on the subject on tape.
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Comey retaliated by letting unnamed “associates” of his leak the word that he’d written up detailed memos of those same chats at the time—“part of a paper trail,” The New York Times explained, that the FBI director had created to document “what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation.” The smoking emoji, so to speak, was Trump purportedly telling him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, letting [Michael J.] Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Before leaving office, Obama warned his successor against hiring Flynn.
Whether or not that qualifies as attempted obstruction of justice, it sure sounds an awful lot like it. Flynn, of course, is the disgraced ex-NSC adviser whose contacts with Russia (and fibs about same) set off alarm bells for former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates before Trump fired her in February. Before leaving office, Barack Obama specifically warned his successor against hiring Flynn, presumably for related reasons.
It’s now come out that Trump even knew when he offered this “good guy” the job that Flynn was under investigation for surreptitiously working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey in the bargain. That’s because Flynn told Trump’s transition team so. A Federal prosecutor who specializes in espionage cases is currently leading a grand-jury inquiry into Flynn’s foreign entanglements. All of this is not the sort of thing any president should be urging the FBI’s director to “let go.”
In fact, Trump’s mania about protecting Flynn—or do we mean placating him?—ought to set off alarm bells too. Even when he doesn’t fire his subordinates outright, he’s never been shy about tossing people who’ve displeased him under the bus. By now, although he’s still on the payroll, poor Sean Spicer virtually lives under the bus, subsisting on a diet of dust, Purell and the occasional carrot. On bad days, chief of staff Reince Priebus fights him for the Purell.
Flynn, by contrast, is already in disgrace, out of government, and the single person most likely to be indicted in this affair unless he’s granted immunity. In other words, he’s the kind of toxic figure you’d expect any POTUS to be pretending by now he’d never met. Yet Trump keeps defending and praising him. According to The Daily Beast, not only are the two men still in regular contact, but Trump even daydreams—incredibly—about bringing Flynn back into the White House in some capacity once all this blows over. Why?
Trump doesn’t see anything wrong with operating the way he does. He just thinks his surrogates have done a crappy job of explaining why it’s brilliant.
Whatever the answer to that might be, the Comey-memos bombshell upended the Washington establishment’s understanding of the political realities in play. For Trump, virtually the only silver lining was that the story all but crowded out the earlier revelation that he’d indiscreetly shared top-secret intelligence with a couple of Russian “diplomats"—when they’re working for Vladimir Putin, the term should always be considered a euphemism—in the Oval Office the day after Comey’s firing. Because Putin doesn’t miss a trick, he rubbed America’s nose in it by offering to provide a transcript of the meeting.
Once someone (Jared, Ivanka…Bueller? Anybody?) had presumably looked it up for him, Trump was quick to remind us that presidents have a right to declassify any information they please. But Trump also told the Russians that firing Comey—"a real nut job"—would take the pressure off Russiagate, and presidents who try to fix an FBI investigation can land in some mighty hot water. Even though Watergate analogies have been skittering around the capital for a while, what was new as of mid-week were the people making the comparison, from David Gergen (the sort of cautious D.C. lifer who’ll be buried in the same TV makeup he was born wearing) to GOP Senator John McCain. Even the Democrats saying that talk of impeachment was premature, which it is, were nonetheless helping to transform impeachment from a liberal fantasy into a suddenly plausible outcome.
Out of the not-quite-blue, the various Republican-led Capitol Hill committees that have been pokily investigating this or that aspect of l'affaire Russia started acting as if they meant to do their job, or at least imitate doing their job a mite more convincingly. Among other things, it plainly never occurred to Trump that his blustering tweet about having Comey on tape might remind even this supine Congress it’s got subpoena power. Then, on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—still smarting from Trump’s attempt to cast the DoJ, and himself in particular, as the instigators behind Comey’s firing—did what nobody, even 48 hours earlier, would have believed he’d do: appoint a special counsel to conduct an independent investigation of the whole vat of steaming borscht, no matter what unsightly tidbits might float up.
It could easily be a year before anything newsworthy materializes from Mueller’s probe.
If that was bad news for the White House, Rosenstein’s choice for the job wasn’t far short of stunning. On top of being a longtime ally of Comey’s, ex-FBI director Robert Mueller is nobody’s idea of a patsy susceptible to manipulation or interference. Naming him was a virtual guarantee of an investigation that won’t let up until everything that can possibly be known is known. In terms of institutional Washington’s ongoing contest with Trump’s open contempt for the system’s values, it might as well have been a declaration of war.
Mueller is also a methodical man who won’t be rushed into getting his ducks in a row, but D.C. political realities move at their own tempo, and the impression of a presidency damaged beyond repair is getting difficult to shake. Even before the fallout from Comey’s firing ratcheted up things to crisis level, the days when the bulletins coming out of Trump’s White House have focussed on policy have been few and far between. The dominant narrative has been his personality, his latest outrage, his effed-up staff’s internal meltdowns and so on. One reason all this feels unfixable is that Trump doesn’t see anything wrong with operating the way he does. He just thinks his satraps and surrogates have done a crappy job of explaining why it’s freaking brilliant.
True to form, because his sense of injury is as boundless as his vanity, Trump has labeled the Russiagate investigations "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” He also assured graduates at the Coast Guard Academy—the Coast Guard Academy!—that “no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly,” prompting a flood of social-media postings of Nelson Mandela in prison and JFK getting his head blown to bits in Dallas. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, by the way—not many people know that) might have had a few choice words on the topic as well.
On Friday, as the Washington Post broke the sensational news that a senior White House adviser who’s “close to the president” was now a “person of interest” in the Russiagate probe, Lincoln’s successor bundled his portly POTUS-corpus aboard Air Force One for a foreign trip he'ssaid to “dread” and his aides are calling “do-or-die.” They’re talking about their own jobs’ future, but the description could easily apply to his. His first stop is Saudi Arabia, and Trump may want to stick around Riyadh a while. Unlike the other countries on his itinerary, Saudi Arabia currently has no extradition treaty with the United States of America.