FT COLUMN: Trump, Sessions and America’s looming constitutional crisis
Special counsel Robert Mueller is nothing if not thorough, while President Donald Trump is nothing if not ruthless
The guns of August are cocked and ready. Donald Trump is wondering aloud whether to fire his attorney-general, Jefferson Sessions. Coming from the top, such speculation can only end in Sessions’s departure. The US president is also musing about who will rid him of the troublesome special counsel, Robert Mueller. That, too, must eventually end in Mueller’s exit. Both are a question of timing. My hunch is August. But it could be months away. Or tomorrow.
The point is that Trump will do what he must to block the investigation. His latest escalation was triggered by Mueller’s decision to broaden his probe to include the Trump Organisation’s financial dealings with Russia. Washington gossips have speculated that Vladimir Putin possesses lurid tapes of Trump. The idea of such "kompromat" might ignite our prurience. But it always seemed far-fetched. In contrast, there is ample cause to scrutinise Trump’s history of business dealings with Russian counterparts.
The further Mueller progresses, the more Trump panics. His reactions betray his motives. No reasonable observer could conclude that Trump is willing to open his books. Having refused to release his tax returns, he risks a constitutional crisis to stop US law enforcement officers from looking into his business dealings. The two are obviously connected. Sooner or later, serious investigators end up following the money. Mueller is nothing if not thorough. Trump is nothing if not ruthless.
It can only result in a collision. The question is whether the US republic can walk away unscathed. Comparisons with Watergate are often facile. But Richard Nixon’s "Saturday Night Massacre" in October 1973 is too pressing a parallel to ignore. Elliot Richardson, his attorney-general, resigned after he had refused to dismiss the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Then the deputy attorney-general, William Ruckelshaus, stepped down for the same reason. Only on the third try could Nixon find an official pliable enough to do his bidding. That man was Robert Bork.
Trump faces the same problem. Having recused himself from anything related to the Russia investigations, Sessions does not have the authority to fire Mueller. But his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is unlikely to do so either. It was he who appointed Mueller after having fired James Comey, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in May. Trump is thus busy smearing Sessions and Rosenstein. He is preparing his base for the purge to come. Say what you like about Trump, but he is easier to read than a traffic light.
It is at this point a constitutional crisis would erupt. America’s founding fathers created a system based on laws, not men. But it is down to people to uphold the system. In theory, there is nothing stopping Trump from doing whatever he likes. Most constitutional lawyers say you cannot indict a sitting president — even if he has repeatedly obstructed justice. If Mueller were sacked, in other words, no court would reinstate him. The same applies to Sessions, and as far down the chain as Trump cared to go.
The US republic’s ultimate safety net is public opinion. So far most Americans are not inflamed by the Russia investigations. It is hard to blame them. People in Washington are obsessed by the day-by-day twists. Most ordinary Americans lack the time to absorb the detail. Who cares if Sessions held undeclared meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign? Politics is a dirty game and the people who throw mud are usually covered in it themselves.
The other safety net is impeachment. Unless public opinion turns sharply against Trump, a Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to act. Nixon had no place to hide after it was revealed he had taped his Oval Office conversations. The Saturday Night Massacre was his last-ditch attempt to stop the tapes from falling into public hands. It was only after they were released that a critical number of Republicans turned against Nixon. That was during a far less partisan era than today.
Ironically, one thing protecting Sessions is that he is more Trumpian than Trump. In the past few months he has been busy putting "America First" into practice by stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants. This has won him friends in outlets such as Breitbart News. That is why Trump’s attacks focus on Sessions’s failure to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Trump needs the base to demand Sessions’s head because of his supposed softness towards "crooked Hillary". As I say, you can read Trump through a blindfold.
© The Financial Times Limited 2017