Trump Angles to 'Cleanse' Washington and Provoke a Constitutional Crisis

An American constitutional crisis, gestating since November 2016, has finally arrived. The president and his allies are seeking to “cleanse” the U.S. government while his opponents in Congress and the Washington bureaucracy seek to defend the rule of law and national security.


The precipitating dispute is almost trivial: release of a Republican memo alleging prosecutorial misconduct toward one low-level Trump aide. But everyone in Washington understands the malice of #ReleaseTheMemo.

Written without input from its target, the FBI, the memo alleges that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein abused his power in approving the surveillance of Carter Page, a second-tier foreign policy adviser.

Despite claims often heard in Washington, the disclosure of certain NSA procedures and capabilities is unlikely to hurt U.S. national security in any material way. The memo is dangerous for another reason. Soon to be released with White House redactions, the memo signals the president’s determination to reach down into the civil service and demonize and punish those who dare to investigate his actions.

According to the Washington Post, Trump says the memo confirms his charges of bias and will help him clean up the Justice Department and fire Rosenstein. That would enable him to appoint a more pliant assistant attorney general who could fire or otherwise constrain special prosecutor Robert Mueller, which is the goal of the whole exercise.

As Mueller's investigation closes in on Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled their support for the president's power play.

In throwing the FBI under the bus, Ryan called for release of the memo, saying, “Let it all out, get it all out there. Cleanse the organization." And so the third-ranking leader of the United States adopted the language of Fox News propagandists who are calling for the arrest of the president’s perceived opponents. 

McConnell did his laconic and sinister part when asked about reports that Trump had ordered Mueller to be fired last June. The special prosecutor, McConnell said, "needs no protection."

Under the circumstances, McConnell seems to be saying that Mueller deserves no protection and will get none.

The Opposition

Trump's opponents, while they have the support of a solid majority of the country, do not speak with such a cohesive voice.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Ryan to "end this charade" and was ignored. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, sounded the alarm Thursday.

FBI director Christopher Wray has "grave concerns." Former CIA director John Brennan, who speaks for the anti-Trump bureaucracy, says:

The protestations of these agencies, which have long histories of abusing power, may ring hollow to some. Some argue, with more passion than logic, that James Comey and John Brennan have done terrible things in the past and therefore no right-thinking person should side with them today. 

Others will note, more cogently, that the FBI profiled Muslims in New York and harassed Martin Luther King Jr; that the NSA practiced and lied about mass surveillance; and that the CIA tortured terror suspects and overthrew foreign governments. All true. But it would be odd (or disingenuous) to argue that the crimes of the past are somehow redressed by the Trump Republicans’ undemocratic tactics today.

The Peril

With Congress under Trump's thumb, the Democrats, Washington's career civil servants, the #NeverTrump conservatives, Tom Steyer's impeachment movement, and the national grassroots women's resistance to Trump all face a potentially perilous situation.

Trump does not seek to reform the agencies investigating him; he seeks to "cleanse" them. This hygienic language, echoing in the #ReleaseTheMemo chorus, dresses up the planned Justice Department purge as a necessary procedure to remove filth, purge disease and restore purity.  

"There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice," said Fox News' Jeanine Pirro in December. "It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in cuffs.... Handcuffs for Andrew McCabe, deputy director of the FBI. The man at the hub, protecting Hillary and attempting to destroy Trump."

Two months later, McCabe is leaving the FBI, not in handcuffs, but clearly under pressure from the White House, which objects to the fact that—gasp—his wife is a Democrat. Like the departed Comey, McCabe lost his job because he was insufficiently deferential to the president. 

And so Trump’s “cleansing” proceeds, a "slow-motion Saturday Night massacre," for those who remember President Nixon’s purge of the Justice Department in October 1973. But the parallel should not be sentimentalized.

Nixon's moves cost him support among Republicans in Congress and the press, and he had to resign 10 months later. Trump, by contrast, has solidified his support in Congress and controls the powerful conservative media.

As the constitutional crisis approaches, Trump is stronger than Nixon was during Watergate. 

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