Undermining the 228-year-old balance of power

We’re seeing institutions start to waver as constraints to Trump’s impulses

President Trump with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va., on Dec. 15. (Evan Vucci/AP)
 January 5 at 5:56 PM

Of the various revelations littered throughout the interview President Trump gave The New York Times last month at Mar-a-Lago, few were as sweeping in their implications as his comments about former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.

“I will say this: Holder protected President Obama,” Trump said. “Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”

There are two important aspects to that. The first is that Trump clearly sees the job of attorney general as, in part, protecting the president from scrutiny and criminal investigation. (This is not part of the job.) The second and perhaps more important aspect is that Trump thinks that the Internal Revenue Service and gun-walking scandals were “real problems,” unlike the “made-up” investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

For those unfamiliar, the two issues mentioned by Trump relate to the IRS’s scrutiny of applications for nonprofit status from conservative groups and an effort by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace illegal gun sales by allowing certain sales to take place. Over the course of Barack Obama’s eight years in office, each was elevated to the position of Major Scandal by the conservative media (to the extent that each is mentioned in Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert’s infamous Hillary-Clinton-is-linked-to-Russia flowchart) — in part because of a general dearth of other, meatier Obama scandals to fixate on.

Often missing from conservative coverage of the issues was important bits of context, such as that the IRS also isolated nonconservative groups for additional scrutiny. Inspectors general from the IRS and Department of Justice identified shortcomings and errors exposed in each case and recommended changes. In neither case were the identified errors tied back to an action by Obama, much less a scandalous one.

Trump, an avid consumer of conservative media, doesn’t seem to have pored over those IG reports. Instead, he seems to have internalized a narrative that was common on Fox News during the Obama administration: The IRS and “Fast and Furious” scandals (as the gun-walking issue was known) were near-Watergate-level misdeeds by Obama and his team. That narrative depended on and fostered a central idea: that Obama was necessarily corrupt. Assume that and you readily accept the idea that there was a nefarious intent behind the incidents — or that the incidents were intentionally downplayed and covered up by the president and his cronies. That’s the heart of Trump’s argument.

This is essential context for Trump’s presidency broadly — but the week’s news in particular.

We learned a few things this week. We learned that, after Trump’s inauguration, the FBI revived an investigation into the Clinton Foundation, apparently looking at whether donations to the nonprofit were connected in any way to official actions by Clinton while she served as secretary of state.

We learned that the Justice Department may also be considering a new review of Clinton’s use of a private email server during that same period.

We learned that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee could, after months of investigation into the Russian meddling incident, recommend that the FBI investigate someone for criminal activity: the guy who compiled the infamous dossier of unconfirmed allegations about Trump-campaign collusion with the Russians in an effort to sway the election. In other words, two senior Senate Republicans are asking for an investigation of a Trump opponent, not anyone alleged to have aided the Russia effort.

We learned that Trump pushed hard for Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigations into Russian meddling — despite department attorneys making it clear to Sessions that a recusal was necessary. The rationale offered, according to The Times, was again that Sessions should work to protect Trump.

Each of these things fits into the view of presidential authority revealed in that Times interview.

The president no doubt believes, at least to some extent, that Clinton broke the law either with her email server or with the Clinton Foundation or both. Past presidents have deliberately avoided seeking prosecutions or investigations of their predecessors or political opponents (think: Obama declining to pursue the question of torture on assuming the presidency). In part, this is because of the bright line that’s drawn between the investigative powers of the Justice Department and the political desires of the person who ultimately runs it. But Trump, as he made clear to the Times, doesn’t see that line.

What’s more, Trump is a politician who is both keenly susceptible to flattery and insecure about his position. He is very aware of the fact that he only narrowly won election to the presidency, doing so despite losing the popular vote. Trump aggressively polices any idea that his victory was anything short of a demonstration of his own general aptitude at all things, and views the Russian-meddling investigations as efforts to show that he wouldn’t have won without Russian aid. It’s not clear what annoys him more: questions about whether he or people on his campaign might have criminally aided the Russian meddling efforts — or questions about the extent to which those efforts might have made the difference.

Trump also remains tightly entwined with the conservative media world that helped shape his political views. He — and much of his political base — believe in the inherent corruption of Obama and Clinton and embrace the sweeping conspiracy theories that erupt throughout the conservative media world with regularity. Of late, that’s meant embracing the idea that the dossier on Trump — which was indeed funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign — is a demonstration of collusion on the part of the Democrats with the Russian government (it isn’t) and a much more significant issue than any of the allegations the dossier contains.

Conservative media insistence on the importance of these issues trickles into the Republican base and puts pressure on other Republican politicians to similarly treat them as important. So we get the curious recommendation from Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) that dossier author Christopher Steele be investigated for having potentially lied to the FBI about disseminating information from the dossier to the media. As our Aaron Blake wrote, this is particularly odd because “Grassley and Graham are alleging that Steele may have lied using information the Justice Department already has and had shared with them.”

All of these specifics make sense within the constructed world of the Trump presidency. But we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. Trump’s view of his power and the power of the Department of Justice he leads is that this power can justifiably be leveled against his political opponents. This is in part because Trump fails to understand that the allegations he’s embracing are often specious (a diet heavy in Sean Hannity will do that to you). But it’s also in part because Trump came to office with the idea that he would wield influence at the White House as he did at Trump Tower: by fiat and without question.

It was expected that the delicate-if-uneven balance of power in Washington would help guide and temper Trump’s inclinations to target his political detractors, and it has, for the most part. This week, though, we saw a number of ways in which that balance is testing — and wavering.

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