The Real Victims

President Donald Trump on White House grounds on May 23, 2018, speaking about what he calls “SPYGATE.”

President Donald Trump donning the mantle of victimhood would be pathetic if it were not so dangerous. “SPYGATE” and “WITCH HUNT!” have become Trump’s favorite attack words on Twitter, his way of deflecting attention from the known and still unknown crimes committed during his campaign and administration and onto the investigators. Aided by both cooperating and complacent congressional Republicans — who will have to answer to the verdict of history for their shamelessness — Trump and his legal team now claim he is the victim of an uncontrolled investigation that stooped to embedding a spy in his campaign, and they have called for an investigation of the investigators. It is their latest legal strategy, and it threatens to undermine the rule of law. If they succeed, the American people — and the Constitution — will be the real victims.

No one knows how much special counsel Robert Mueller knows about the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election nor the details of attempts by Trump and his allies to obstruct justice. The desperateness of Trump’s latest ravings suggest he knows that Mueller is tightening the noose. 

Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr.

The last point is speculative, but here is what we know at this time. Intelligence officials have concluded that Russia — under orders from President Vladimir Putin — conducted a sophisticated campaign to influence the 2016 election, first seeking to “denigrate” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, then developing “a clear preference” for Trump. American law enforcement officials warned Trump in 2016 that Russia would attempt to infiltrate his campaign and requested reports of anything suspicious, which the campaign did not provide. Instead, several Trump campaign officials — inlcluding his son, Donald Trump, Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner — met with Russians to seek Moscow’s assistance, and, as the FBI became aware of these contacts, it ratcheted up its investigation.

Three things about this factual outline are important in assessing Trump’s claim that he is the victim of an illicit and conspiratorial campaign by the American justice system. First, the FBI and other officials went to extraordinary lengths to insure that its investigation of the Trump campaign did not become public, for fear it would influence the election. The bureau’s squeamishness regarding Trump contrasts with then-director James Comey’s openly discussing the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email server. If Trump is correct in claiming that the FBI’s tracking of his campaign is the nation’s “all time biggest political scandal!,” then why did it not leak or reveal its information about the Trump campaign’s Russia ties before the election, when it might have affected the outcome? 

Stefan Halper

Second, as part of its probe, the FBI used an informant to contact several Trump campaign figures whose names previously had surfaced during the bureau’s probe. The informant, Stefan Halper, a university professor previously connected to past Republican administrations, was not spying on the Trump campaign nor was he embedded in the campaign, as Trump alleges. The FBI would have been appallingly derelict in its duty if it declined to use available resources to investigate the contacts of Trump advisers with links to Russia, such as Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, given what it already knew about Russian meddling. 

Third, Trump’s attempt to investigate the investigators is a play stolen from the playbook of authoritarian rulers like Russia’s strongman Putin. Dictators and would-be dictators use their justice systems to punish enemies and deflect attention from their own wrongdoings. Leaders in countries without a strong tradition of the rule of law often engage in such tactics. For Trump to do so is a willful attempt to undermine the rule of law and threaten our constitutional government.

Trump’s success in deflecting attention from the investigation of him onto the investigators depends on the cooperation of willing accomplices in Congress and the conservative media. The latter will defend Trump to the bitter end. As for the former, some, like many conservative House Republicans, are quick to make the president’s case and even quicker to see nefarious motives on the part of the FBI, the special counsel’s office, and the wider Department of Justice.

Representatives Devin Nunes and Paul Ryan

The real culprits in the president’s current strategy are the enablers among Republicans in Congress, some of whom have spoken aloud in the president’s defense while others have defended him with their silence. The GOP House leadership has left the clownish Representative Devin Nunes (California) in charge of the House Intelligence Committee, allowing him to cook up various fake conspiracies and attack law enforcement. House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) — who should know better — now says, “I do think it’s appropriate in the context of the legitimate Intelligence Committee investigation that this information [about the alleged embedded spy] be provided to Congress.” Ryan — and most of the rest of congressional Republicans — must be aware of the danger attacking the investigators presents to constitutional government. Actually, that is not quite right. Congressional Republicans actively are aiding Trump in deflecting attention by dredging up a time-honored Republican trope: They have called for yet another investigation of Clinton’s emails. For some reason, they continually forget who won the election. Ryan, for his part, is leaving Congress, but in his final months in office he cannot rise to the occasion and put country before party.

If President Trump can bend the justice system to his will — telling it who it should investigate and who it should not — American freedoms are in danger. On the one hand, it places the president above the law, free to do as he pleases without fear of answering for his actions. On the other, a president could direct federal law enforcement agencies to investigate his political opponents. Augmenting these threats to American freedoms is the inability or unwillingness of Congress to play its proper role in balancing power. The very soul of American democracy is at stake. 

Lawyers know the old saying, attributed to poet, journalist, and historian Carl Sandburg: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” Trump cares little about facts and even less about the law. In any event, both are against him, so he is pounding the table. The trouble is: The American people and the U.S. Constitution are the table, and we are taking an awful beating. We are the real victims of Trump’s assault on the rule of law.

Posted May 25, 2018

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