WASHINGTON – Beltway wise guys – the same people who thought Hillary Clinton would waltz into the White House – are now assuring themselves that Donald Trump is going down.
They tell each other that he is too stupid, paranoid, amateurish and even insane to survive the many car crashes he has had with himself as he fends off probes into whether his campaign was tied to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Once again they don’t understand Trump. They are still underestimating him. And this time nothing less than the fate of the American system of government – once the envy of the world – is at stake.
Trump thinks he can power through this and shut down the series of investigations that are driving him into a state of fury. Despite the durability of the institutions opposing him, it is not completely clear that he is wrong. American democracy is not in good health, and it was that very rot that got Trump elected.
Voters distrust and even despise government institutions and leaders, even as the public’s knowledge of their functions dwindles year by year. Investigators probing the Trump circle work for government, after all. Trump is counting on skepticism and alienation to weaken public outrage and protect his own cynical moves. The intelligence community is vulnerable. It missed Sept. 11, got Iraq wrong, has been hacked repeatedly, and has been caught illegally spying on American citizens.
In the weeks and months or even years ahead, some key people are going to have to show some real courage, and they are risk-averse types: Republican leaders, intelligence agency heads, bureaucrats and judges in federal courts and the Supreme Court.
Trump thinks he can intimidate and overpower them all. There are two reasons. One is that his view of the office he occupies is even more Nixonian than disgraced President Richard Nixon.
But the other reason is far more intrinsic and crucial. Trump believes deeply in his own power to “win” any struggle through intimidation and fear. His superpower is his uncanny ability to sense weakness.
He kicks down rotted doors.
As a real estate developer, he got his start swooping in on distressed property that New York was desperate to save. He was famous for stiffing contractors, even if not especially small ones who could not match the firepower of his lawyers. If wealthy tenants complained that luxurious amenities never materialized, he would dare them to sue – and then he would countersue. He took projects bankrupt when it suited his purposes, then disparaged the lenders as desperate con artists.
He has done exactly the same thing in politics.
They don’t understand Trump. They are still underestimating him. And this time nothing less than the fate of the American system of government is at stake.
Trump has set upon a weak, divided and corroded Republican Party, which was (and is) in thrall to billionaire donors, cosseted by gerrymandering and deluded by Fox News into thinking all was well.
The GOP field, he saw, was comically weak and inept. He tore through it like a chainsaw through balsa wood, not with policy proposals but with slurs, shouting epithets at debates, and pledging wild promises to voters who resented their own powerlessness.
He rightly sensed weakness in Hillary Clinton, too, and took her down in the Electoral College with a blitzkrieg of negative campaigning that ran parallel to, and possibly in tandem with, the efforts of Russian hackers and fake news specialists.
In all of this Trump was either consciously or by coincidence following the lead of the world’s master predator, Vladimir Putin, who long ago updated the Soviet’s old Cold-War idea of using the West’s open democratic institutions to weaken democracy itself. Putin this time is doing it in the name of culture, not Communism – claiming to be the protector of white Christianity against the advance of Islam and moral decay.
As a KGB man and ally of an early (corrupt) reformer, Putin sensed how weak his own country’s infant democracy was, and remorselessly used the new system’s freedoms to destroy it.
Now, in Washington, Trump is frantically hunting for weakened enemies, and surrounding himself with plaint advisors to guard his flanks.
He will not countenance advisers in his inner circle who are not utterly dependent on him, and who have little or no outside clout, and whose talent level is not highly regarded.
Those who are respected are neutered in other ways. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s third choice for National Security Advisor, is an active duty officer who has no choice but to follow the commander-in-chief’s orders on any issue at any time. Defense Secretary James Mattis is also chained by the chain of command.
Politically and legislatively, Trump hasn’t bestirred himself to search for real bipartisan support. Instead he has focused almost exclusively on protecting his power to intimidate weak Republicans by rallying his “Trump Country” white, populist voters.
He staged a rally in Kentucky not long ago designed specifically to send that message to GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who originally had no use for Trump but who is now toeing the line.
Trump has nominated cabinet officials who have no understanding or standing with the communities they are supposed to manage, and who therefore have no independent power themselves.
He has tried to charm and threaten the press, and generally decided that the latter works better, especially at a time when the press is generally unpopular and divided by the stove-piping of cultures and made vulnerable by digital networks.
Trump assumed that he had found another weak reed in Comey, who had become all too visible and vulnerable to being labelled a “grandstander” and “showboat” that Trump said he was.
But as politically vulnerable as Comey had become, he was widely admired inside the bureau and outside it. And his project – to investigate the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia – is seen as a desperately urgent priority by the entire U.S. intelligence community, of which the FBI is only one part.
The Comey firing was a major battle in a war that has been raging since last summer, when an FBI national security surveillance incidentally picked up some members of the Trump circle.
Did Trump or his campaign know that this was going on? If he was aware did he encourage it?
Those questions are the core of the battle between Russia’s allies in TrumpWorld and its foes in “the community,” which literally for generations has seen Russia as the chief threat to world democracy.
“People are concerned, even angry,” retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, a former head of the CIA and the NSA, told HuffPost. They never have and never will trust Russia, he said, and remain deeply concerned about Russia’s actions here in the election.
McMaster, sources say, is caught in the middle: a Russophobe who nevertheless seems eager to show personal loyalty to Trump.
So how does Trump try to win this war, and shutdown or sidetrack the investigations now underway in the Senate, House and FBI?
He starts at the Department of Justice, where staunch ally Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on the Russia investigation but eagerly worked to help get Comey fired. Sessions’ supposedly fearless and nonpartisan new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, nevertheless did what he was told and wrote a tendentious memo that the president used to justify his decision to fire Comey.
Sessions and Rosenstein won’t choose the new nominee for director – Trump will – but they will keep a close eye on whomever is confirmed. Will that person be fearlessly independent? Or will they take the “loyalty” oath Comey says that the president had demanded of him. The betting has to be on the latter.
Elsewhere in the “community,” Trump so far has managed to install cooperative souls who can be counted to discourage renegade rank-and-filers from taking their concerns about Russian meddling public. These include Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mattis.
It will nevertheless be up to those rank-and-filers to get information to the public in the face of the threats that Trump, Sessions and others could use against them.
Then there is Congress. On the Hill, GOP leaders who control both chambers are refusing to support the naming of a special prosecutor, something that only the head of the DOJ (with Sessions recused, that would be Rosenstein) or the president himself can do. It is unclear when or whether House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Leader McConnell would feel the moral or political need – or have the guts – to break with Trump.
McConnell thinks of himself as a sober admirer of the Constitution and traditional institutions such as the Senate. And in his autobiography he proudly recounts his youthful bravery in standing up to a schoolyard bully. Still, he is known more for caution than courage – and Kentucky voters in his home state overwhelmingly voted for Trump.
The courts are just as important. As disorganized as it has been, the Trump administration now is racing to fill seats on the federal bench, which will play a key role in adjudicating subpoenas as other rules of the road of the various investigations. Democrats no longer have the filibuster as a tool to slow down or prevent the president from reshaping the courts.
On the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy is going to stay put – lest Trump gets to nominate someone to replace him. Chief Justice John Roberts, is by temperament, worlds away from Trump, and is extremely sensitive to the court’s reputation.
How will that play if and when a Russia investigation case comes before him and his colleagues?
And then there is the FBI itself, where all of this began.
In a replay of the famous Deep Throat adage to “follow the money,” the Feds have launched a classic plan: “squeeze” witnesses and get evidence from the bottom up, from the outside in, to probe the higher ups – in this case the inner circle of President Trump, and maybe the president himself.
It is well known and understood that the FBI has been running a “counter-intelligence” inquiry since last summer into whether there were ties – or even collusion – between the Trump campaign and/or Trump insiders and Russian interests.
That inquiry is all about national security – and whether it was or is compromised by the interference of foreign agents or a foreign country.
But now the probe has developed the beginnings of what the FBI calls a “parallel case,” looking for more garden variety federal crimes – everything from tax evasion to failing to truthfully fill out government questionnaires – committed by those who have been caught up in the nets of the national security probe.
The aim is not to put those people in jail for long stretches, but to give them an urgent reason to cooperate on other matters.
“That’s how it works,” explained Michael Tabman, a former FBI field chief. “The federal prosecutor makes someone a ‘Queen for a Day.’ The target in one investigation becomes a witness in another, and gets immunity for anything that they tell us.”
Perhaps knowing what was coming, Comey had taken the FBI probe to a new level just before he was fired and his office sealed by Trump’s personal bodyguard while he was in Los Angeles.
Comey had seen to it that a federal grand jury in Virginia, under the direction of respected U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, had issued subpoenas for records of associates of now-ousted pro-Russia Trump crony and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
In this it would go from associates of Flynn to Flynn; from Flynn to other Trump campaign insiders such as Paul Manafort and Carter Page; and from them to…who knows where?
Trump doesn’t know how someone in his circle, if under the gun on another charge, will behave. The president does not know what that person might say when facing the possibility of jail time.
That is a nightmare situation for Trump: someone else’s weakness could render him – the president – the weakest man of all.