For those who follow the history of Watergate and the President Nixon resignation 44 years ago, the occurrences happening in Washington are eerily familiar.
In what was to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, on October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox; Richardson refused and resigned effective immediately. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox; Ruckelshaus refused, and resigned. Nixon then ordered the third-most-senior official at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork considered resigning but did as Nixon asked. The political and public reaction damaged Nixon and a new special counsel was appointed eleven days later, November 1, 1973.
Weeks later, on November 14, 1973, a court ruled that the dismissal had been illegal.
This week, President Trump called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference in a Wednesday morning tweet. Some think the latest Trump tweets came about because Mueller wanted to ask Trump questions on obstruction of justice.
Trump tweeted, “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
Trump then went after others who are or were on the Muller team. He tweeted, ““FBI Agent Peter Strzok (on the Mueller team) should have recused himself on day one. He was out to STOP THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP. He needed an insurance policy. Those are illegal, improper goals, trying to influence the Election. He should never, ever be allowed to remain in the FBI while he himself was being investigated. This is a real issue. It won’t go into a Mueller Report because Mueller is going to protect these guys. Mueller has an interest in creating the illusion of objectivity around his investigation.”
While he has regularly lambasted Mueller’s investigation as a biased “witch hunt,” the tweet represents the first time in which Trump has publicly called on Sessions to end the investigation. However, Trump has reportedly pressured Sessions to end the investigation in private on multiple occasions.
Sessions, who has recused himself from supervising the Mueller investigation, didn’t immediately respond to the president’s tweet. Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.
Trump said last summer he would have chosen a different attorney general had he known Sessions would recuse himself from supervising the investigation of election interference. Trump has periodically launched barrages of public attacks on Sessions related to the special counsel’s investigation.
This is a turnaround from the campaign, when Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Trump and was praised by Trump.
Sessions recused himself from all matters related to the 2016 campaign last year after his meetings with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak became public. Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein assumed then appointed special counsel Mueller to investigate the Russian election meddling and whether anyone in the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Because of Session’s recusal and the political volatility of the issue, it is unlikely that he will follow Trump’s advice and fire Mueller.
Trump’s tweet was immediately condemned by some Democratic lawmakers as a blatant attempt to obstruct justice:
“The President of the United States just called on his Attorney General to put an end to an investigation in which the President, his family and campaign may be implicated," Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter. "This is an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight. America must never accept it."
However, Trump was not finished making comments as he made sure the American public understood his relationship with Paul Manafort, “Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!”
The Trump tweets come one week after a New York Times report revealed that Mueller’s team is examining the president’s tweets for evidence of obstruction of justice.
Mueller is reportedly interested in Trump’s public criticism of Sessions and James Comey, who he later admitted to firing partly due to the former FBI director’s refusal to publicly exonerate him as a non-suspect in the Russia probe.
Government prosecutors believe Trump’s public criticisms of Comey may constitute witness tampering, according to the report. Those criticisms occurred around the same time Trump began attacking Sessions for choosing to recuse himself. The president launched multiple tirades against Sessions over a three-day period last July and reportedly seriously considered firing him after trying to convince him to reverse his decision.
However, there are questions about the case and the vigor in which the special prosecutor is pursuing many of these charges. This was seen during the second day of the Manafort Trial when the judge questioned some of the prosecutor’s tactics and prohibited them.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors were lectured by a federal judge on Wednesday for the language they’ve used in the courtroom. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III specifically told prosecutors to stop using the word “oligarch” to describe wealthy Ukrainians, whose dealings with Manafort are at the heart of the fraud charges he faces in northern Virginia federal court.
The judge said the term has a “pejorative” meaning and is not relevant in this case. Further, he cautioned that using it could suggest Manafort is associated with bad people – and guilty by association.
“It’s not the American way,” the judge said. He noted that wealthy donors like George Soros or the Koch brothers also could be considered oligarchs.
The Mueller team was later rebuffed again by Ellis when they tried to introduce photos that eventually would become public of Manafort’s closets filled with suits and high-end clothing. “Enough is enough. We don’t convict people because they have a lot of money and throw it around,” he said.
Ellis has scolded members of Mueller’s team before, asserting back in May that the team was really interested in targeting President Trump.
Reports like this are raising questions in the minds of voters and signal a growing lack of trust in the special prosecutor and the justice system in general.
This can be seen in polling. A recent public survey showed three-quarters (74.8%) believe the American legal system often does not follow the rule of ‘equal treatment under the law.’
Prosecutors occupy a central role in the criminal justice system, but over two-fifths (42.8%) say prosecutor misconduct is widespread. Strong majorities of persons say most cases of prosecutor misconduct are kept hidden from the public (71.4%), and similar numbers say prosecutors who commit misconduct are almost never punished (73.5%).
These are numbers that indicate Mueller’s toughest task may be convincing Americans that his actions are fair and constitutional.
One example is the Manafort trial that began this week. Manafort was Trump’s former campaign chair and now faces 305 years in prison for tax evasion crimes.
A sentence of 305 years is the type of punishment given to the worst of mass murders, not tax evaders. Political commentator Tucker Carlson said, “Manafort now faces 305 years in prison. That’s several life sentences. So what exactly is Paul Manafort accused of doing? If you guessed murder, guess again. Most murderers don’t get treated like that by the government. The average violent felon in this country receives just six-and-a-half years behind bars. No, Paul Manafort is accused of something far worse than murder – tax evasion and violating banking regulations. The government isn’t even suggesting Manafort stole money from a bank. They say he was dishonest on loan applications. For that: solitary confinement and 305 years in prison… For perspective on that, the average sentence for tax fraud in this country is a year and three months.”
The reason for the stiff sentence according to some former prosecutors is that Manafort refused to testify against Trump and this is Mueller’s way to punish him. Many prosecutors say that this is a violation of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment, which provides for equal protection under the law.
But, Mueller may have problems there too. Eight years ago, Paul Manafort was investigated for the very same charges he has since been indicted for by special counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano made this point on Wednesday during an appearance on the network’s morning show, “Fox & Friends.” What’s more, a legal team led by current Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein was responsible for exonerating Manafort, as Napolitano reminded the audience.
There are also questions about the charges that the special prosecutor may level against the president and their validity. According to reports, he is looking at charging Trump with witness tampering for his tweet attacking the Special Prosecutor. However, the charge of witness tampering may be very weak since no charges have been made and freedom is speech is protected. In addition, it is common for both sides in a case to make public statements unless restricted by a judge.
So, how will this play out? The trial is in the most anti-Trump district in America, where Hillary Clinton won 90% of the vote. Therefore, it is likely that Manafort will be found guilty of something. However, Trump has the power to pardon Manafort or commute his sentence to time already served.
However, a guilty verdict will give Democrats campaign material in the lead up to the midterm elections in November – especially of Mueller releases a report right before the election.
However, the Mueller report may not be the “magic bullet” Democrats think. And, remember that Mueller’s report is not going to be released immediately. Mueller turns it in to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who some House Republicans want to impeach) and then he must decide what to do with it. He also must make decisions about redactions of classified materials and grand-jury proceedings that are, traditionally, not released to the public. Mueller’s report is not likely to be short, and the decisions about what to redact are not likely to be simple or undisputed.
And all of this is just to get to the public disclosure of what Mueller found.
But, the damage to Mueller and his investigation may negate any benefit from the report. Majority of polled voters say special counsel Robert Mueller has a conflict of interest because of his past ties to former FBI Director James Comey, according to the latest Harvard CAPS-Harris survey.
According to a Morning Consult poll, a plurality of voters now think the Mueller investigation has been handled unfairly- a shift of 26 points in the last year. Admittedly much of the shift comes from Republicans, but the polling shows growing numbers of independents and Democrats questioning Mueller.
But, that doesn’t impact Democratic plans to unseat Trump. The first goal is to win majorities in the House and Senate that will allow for impeachment of Trump, although conviction, which requires 2/3 of the Senate is more unlikely.
The reality is that short of that indisputable evidence, most GOP senators are not going to go along with what their grassroots supporters see as an attempt to undo the 2016 presidential election.
In other words, short of that airtight case, an impeachment vote in the Senate is likely to fail, offering something similar to the Clinton impeachment - a case where the president’s critics are convinced he committed crimes and escaped serious consequence, and the president’s supporters, who are convinced he was unfairly targeted by a partisan vendetta and a prosecutor who was determined to claim a scalp.
The other option is the 25th Amendment, where frightened Republicans in the Cabinet decide to remove Trump on their own.
What this means is that the issue will not go away in November. If the Republican aren’t swept away in a Democratic wave, the status quo will remain with charges and counter charges floating around Senate and House subcommittees that are investigating some part of the whole affair.
A Democratic take over of the House could lead to impeachment but could also lead to losing the House in two years just as the Republicans lost control of the House after impeaching Clinton. And, remember that conviction in the Senate requires 67 votes – nearly an impossibility without serious criminal evidence that would move Trump supporters away from the president.
If the Democrats fail to win the House, it’s likely that Trump will move to end the investigation through firings.
In closing, this is one of those desperate gambles that the Democrats and anti-Trumpers have taken in the past two years. The tried to convince GOP delegates not to vote for Trump at the Republican National Convention – even though he won the majority of primaries. They tried recounts in several states that Trump won. They tried to get Trump electors to not vote for Trump even though he won the states. They tried parliamentary maneuvers in Congress. They tried to convince Vice President Pence to declare Trump unfit to serve as President. They all failed.
It seems the odds are on the side of Trump and the latest attempts might fail also.