Trump, Congress, and the Politics of Constitutional Crisis

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President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House

When a principal of the Justice Department of the United States suggests that a gaggle of congressmen is trying to extort him, you might conclude that things are a bit unstable here in the republic. Even dangerously so. But so accustomed have we become to the teetering, it all seems to be just another shade of normal.

I’m speaking, of course, of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s stern, public warning to members of the House Freedom Caucus yesterday that he would not yield to their threat to impeach him.

“I can tell you that there have been people who have been making threats privately and publicly against me for quite some time,” Rosenstein said during a speaking appearance at the Newseum, in response to an audience member’s question. “I think they should understand by now that the Department of Justice is not going to get extorted. We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law, and any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job.”

Rosenstein is charged with overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and any relationship members of the Trump campaign may have had to that meddling. President Donald J. Trump had expected that any such investigation would have been overseen by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but that paragon of virtue got caught in a lie about his meetings with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.—who happens to be the same guy whose conversations with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn led to Flynn’s ouster. Flynn, too, ostensibly lied about his discussions with Kislyak about the nature of those conversations. So much lying about chats with that same guy!

Trump no doubt thought that Sessions would stop or stonewall the investigation, given the president’s disgust at Sessions’s recusal from oversight of the probe. And Republicans on Capitol Hill are doing everything they can to get in Mueller’s way. The threat to impeach Rosenstein by a handful of far-right House members is only the latest such effort at intimation. Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recently made one of his own. At issue in both threats are demands from members of Congress to examine the documentation used to obtain a secret warrant against Carter Page, a member of the Trump campaign who did business in Russia

Are we having a constitutional crisis yet? Well, maybe not yet, but any day now.

Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan seem bent on finding a way to allege that Page was targeted by the Obama Justice Department simply because he was a member of the Trump team. Because they believe secret FISA warrant is based, in part, on the famous Steele dossier—a bit of opposition research that was partly funded by a law firm contracted by Democrats—they hope to distract from the substance of the facts by smearing the source of those facts. Like, perhaps the fact that Carter page described himself as “an adviser to the Kremlin.” And if they don’t get their way on their demand to see the top-secret document that launched the Russia investigation, they threaten to impeach the guy in charge of it. Separation of powers be damned.

Smells like constitutional crisis. But we’re getting so used to the scent that we don’t recognize it.

Trump, of course, has relentlessly disparaged the investigation, both in spoken remarks and on Twitter. He even admitting firing former FBI Director James Comey because of the Russia investigation, and that’s having a real impact on international crime-fighting. 

How is that not a constitutional crisis?

The New York Times today reports that an anti-corruption investigation in Ukraine was brought to a halt for fear that the Trump administration would cut off aid to the country from which Russia seized the Crimea. The investigation involved work done by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, whom Mueller charged with conspiracy against the United States. Findings in Ukraine’s investigation of any role by Manafort’s in the corruption scheme under examination there might have been useful to Mueller in his examination of Russia’s activities in the U.S. election. But it seems that Ukraine really, really wants the missiles it was promised by the U.S., especially given Russia’s ever-present threat to its territory and autonomy.

Well, that one may not be a constitutional crisis. It’s just extortion. On a global scale.

Did I mention that Manafort’s Ukraine work was done on behalf of a pro-Russia politician who has since fled to Moscow?

Or that Sessions, who, during his confirmation hearing, denied having contacts with Russians during the campaign later admitted he met with Kislyak twice, and one time, “somehow the subject of Ukraine came up.”

The thing is this: We have been in a state of constitutional crisis almost since Trump took office. It’s how he rules. “Do what I want, or I’ll smash the republic.”

And we’re letting him do it, with his henchmen in the Congress. Because it’s just the normal way of things now. 

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