Heather Cox Richardson says the crisis of the Trump administration has begun

Historians in the News
tags: Trump

​Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of ​history at Boston College and co-​host of NPR's politics and history podcast Freak Out and Carry On and co-editor of We're History.

The crisis of the Trump administration has begun, and it threatens the survival of American democracy. On one side are the mounting revelations that Trump's people worked closely with Russians and other foreign interests to influence the 2016 election, and that after the election, business interests tossed money at the president and his family to influence government policies. On the other side is the president's increasingly authoritarian attempts to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. 

We would all like to believe that our legal system will withstand any inappropriate pressure from a rogue administration, but Trump's willful attacks on the press, the FBI, and the Department of Justice are deeply troubling. That his attacks are echoed and amplified by the likes of Sean Hannity and other apologists is frightening. And the fact that the president's attempts to destroy the investigation are aided by members of Congress is, frankly, terrifying. 

First of all, let's get rid of the "Mueller's got nothing and this is all a witch hunt that needs to wrap up" argument. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election for a little over a year. In that time, the grand jury convened to examine evidence-- for only it, not Mueller, can indict people, and it must do so by a 2/3 vote-- has indicted 19 people and three companies that we know of (more indictments remain sealed). Seven people associated with the issue have pled guilty: six to smaller crimes in exchange for cooperating with Mueller (note that this includes two charged in New York). In comparison, the Benghazi investigation took two and a half years and resulted in no indictments. The investigation is producing results.

There is an immediate crisis right now, though. Trump is under terrible pressure from two directions. The first is whether or not Trump is guilty of "obstruction of justice." Trying to hamper or stop a criminal investigation is a federal crime. That issue hit the table when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, apparently to protect Trump's former advisor Michael Flynn, who had had contacts with Russians during the transition and had lied about them. Since then, legal scholars have speculated that Trump's tweets might constitute further obstruction.

Stunningly, even though obstruction is what brought down Richard Nixon, right now it is the lesser of Trump's worries. 

Worse for him are the crimes themselves, and Mueller's investigation is getting perilously close to him. Michael Flynn is already cooperating with the Special Counsel, and two more of Trump's closest advisors might well flip. Former campaign chairman and longtime Trump confidant Paul Manafort is due in federal court on July 10 to stand trial for bank fraud and money laundering. Manafort's partner Rick Gates has already flipped to cooperate with Mueller. So has Manafort's former son-in-law, who was also involved in Manafort's business dealings. Manafort is looking at spending the rest of his life in prison, unless he can cut a deal. 

So is Michael Cohen, Trump's fixer. It is Cohen who arranged the payment to buy Stormy Daniels's silence about her affair with Trump, but it is abundantly clear that Cohen's greatest value to Trump was in Cohen's ties in Russia. Trump's flailing over the Daniels issue gave the Attorney General of the Southern District of New York a reason to seize Cohen's business records, records Cohen's lawyers are today trying desperately to have tossed out of court. Since that raid, a number of news stories have broken alleging that Cohen was running a payment racket, taking huge sums of money to get countries or individuals access to Trump so he would alter national policies in their favor. And, earlier today, Cohen's business partner flipped on him. Cohen will also spend the rest of his life in prison... unless he can cut a deal. 

The possibility that either Manafort or Cohen-- or both-- might flip is a huge threat to Trump, if indeed he has participated in any criminal activity. It is worth reiterating that there is not currently any publicly available information that proves that Trump was involved in any of the shenanigans his people engaged in. The strongest inclination we have that he is guilty of crimes is the way he is acting.

Trump appears to be frantic. He is railing that Mueller's investigation is "an abuse of power" that is "WORSE than Watergate." To attack the investigation, Trump-- the President of the United States-- is undermining our intelligence communities, our Department of Justice, and our rule of law. 

Trump is lashing out at Mueller, the FBI, and the Department of Justice-- under which the Special Counsel operates-- insisting that they inserted spies into his campaign in an attempt to help Secretary of State Clinton. This argument makes no sense even on the face of it: the FBI broke protocol to drop a story that hurt Clinton, not Trump, before the election, while hiding that the bureau was investigating the Trump campaign for illegal activities. Trump's new object of fury comes from the recent story that a long-time FBI informant spoke to three people in Trump's circle during the campaign after those people were already under FBI surveillance for questionable activities.

In their determination to learn more about what that agent might have told the FBI, Trump and his people have taken deeply disturbing actions. First, they actually blew the cover of the FBI informant, seriously weakening our ability to convince vulnerable people to cooperate with our intelligence agencies. Then, Trump demanded-- by tweet-- that the Department of Justice investigate whether or not the FBI or the Department of Justice infiltrated or investigated his campaign for political purposes, and to see if anyone in the Obama administration demanded such an infiltration. This is another red line: the president should not order the Department of Justice to launch a political investigation. With a rising popular outcry on the right, led by the likes of Sean Hannity-- another client of Michael Cohen-- congressional Republicans have pressured Deputy Attorney General, Republican Rod Rosenstein, to reveal in coming days the "highly classified" information that the informant provided to the FBI, but only to Republican leaders, not to Democrats. These congressmen are charging preemptively that these has been misconduct at the "highest levels" of the FBI and the Department of Justice.

These are terrifying developments that give the president the powers of a dictator with a compliant cabal. To get rid of the Russia investigation, Trump and his enablers are willing to destroy the rule of law, the system on which our government is based. Make no mistake: if we lose that, we have lost American democracy.

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