It’s the day after, and the nation awoke to the new reality — that everything had changed and that nothing had changed.
The Justice Department’s special counsel to investigate Trump-Russia ties is now in place. Congressional committees are just warming up. The Trump White House was, if only briefly, shocked into near silence. But if it feels as if the Trump story is racing full throttle toward some kind of resolution — you know, Thelma and Louise style — don’t be fooled.
Donald Trump met the new day in the old style, by tweeting out the news that he was the victim of the greatest witch hunt in American history. You don’t need to pause to consider the accuracy of this ahistorical conclusion because, as we know, the president didn’t pause to consider anything when he pressed the button on his phone. It’s enough to consider that Trump remains unchastened, which is all we could have anticipated.
We are now at that famed Churchillian juncture. Not the beginning of the end but, perhaps, the end of the beginning. There are many, many battles yet to be fought. And the nature of those battles — including whether a dependably craven Congress will step up to do its part — will be played out over months and possibly years.
Remember, we’re not quite four months into the Trump presidency. I know it seems longer. It seems like forever. If there’s a lesson here, it may be that the more we yearn for a return to some kind of normalcy, the harder it can be to even remember what normal was like.
Naming a special counsel to investigate all things Trump and Russia should be a start. Naming Robert Mueller, well respected across the political spectrum, as the special counsel should be a start. The fact that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — still recovering from the misstep of his James Comey memo — named a special counsel without consulting the White House is a clear reminder of a time when democratic institutions still mattered. That is definitely a start.
But it’s only a start. Donald Trump is still Donald Trump, as he reminded us with the usual series of tweets. Why, Trump tweet-whined, didn’t Hillary Clinton get a special counsel (or councel, as Trump wrote it)? Why not Barack Obama? Why only him?
A better question is whether a special counsel is enough (Hint: it isn’t). The special counsel investigates illegality. It investigates in secret. It takes a lot of the action indoors, which is why you see so many Republican leaders embracing Mueller. For the moment, at least, it takes them somewhat off the hook. How can they comment, they’ll say, when there’s an active investigation ongoing? (Hint: They can.)
What is still required — and what remains most important — is a public accounting of Russian interference in the election, whether there was any collusion with the Trump campaign, what complicating financial ties Trump might have with Russians, how, in fact, Trump came to fire Comey and why Trump thought he could ask him to “let this go,” how, in fact, Michael Flynn came to be hired, why House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy jokes at a Republican meeting that Trump is on the Putin payroll. This is what we’re left depending on the Republican-controlled Congress to do. The strict legality here, after all, is far less important than the assault on American values.
But, whatever happens, it won’t be happen fast, even in our hyper-speed world. Here’s the thing to remember, as I wrote a few days ago: It was more than two years after the Watergate break-in that Richard Nixon resigned. And another thing: Trump still has the power to fire Rosenstein and name a new Deputy AG, who could fire Mueller as special counsel. Impossible? Ask Archibald Cox.
At this point, you would have hoped, though, that Trump might have learned a lesson concerning abuse of power. But you know better. Trump doesn’t do lessons, as we’ll see as he heads off for his first overseas diplomatic mission. He’ll go with two major disadvantages: He’ll be, of course, ill-prepared for the wide array of meetings and at those meetings he’ll be in a weakened position to negotiate anything.
To understand where Trump sees his situation you have only to read the news reports that Trump is blaming his staff for his problems, as if it were a public relations problem that he passed secrets onto the Russians or that he tried to get Comey to stop his investigation before Trump fired him or that the ultra-careful Comey had detailed notes about the meetings or, well, where does it end. It doesn’t end, and that’s the main thing to consider.
We’re not at some stopping point. Trump will continue to be Trump. The past missteps will only help predict the next one. And the next Trump story — soon to broken in either The New York Times or The Washington Post — will no doubt be as shocking as the last.
The latest story, mostly missed with the special counsel announcement, was that the Trump transition team knew that Flynn was under investigation when Trump named him national security adviser, giving him full access to our nation’s secrets. Mike Pence, it should be noted, was head of that transition team. And so now we must ask, what did the vice-president know and when did he know it? And before we get an answer, if we ever do, there will be a dozen more questions to come.
Photo by Medill DC via Flickr: Creative Commons