Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter explains why the walls are closing in on Trump: He 'shot himself in the foot by firing Comey'

"If [Matt] Whitaker acts to shut down [Robert] Muller, he too will be guilty of obstruction of justice and a conspirator in that crime."

James Comey and Donald Trump

When Tim Weiner’s book “Enemies: A History of the FBI” was published in 2012, he may not have envisioned that one day it would inspire a documentary series meant to place the erratic actions of Donald Trump into context.

Another president? Sure. But not a guy best known as the host of “The Apprentice” when “Enemies” first came out.

“Let’s examine reality television,” Weiner mused in a recent phone interview, in support of Showtime’s four-part series “Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI.”  "That is fake news. I grew up in New York, you know. I've been watching Trump since the '70s and everybody within the realm of reason knows that he is a grifter and a con man. He is now also the most powerful man on Earth.”

A week after Trump asked for the resignation of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installed a loyalist, Matt Whitaker, as acting Attorney General, the public remains agog. The common presumption is that Whitaker will use his position to halt special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigationinto Russian interference with the 2016 election. Many political analysts are wondering aloud how soon we’ll be thrown into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Showtime’s four-part “Enemies,” premiering Sunday at 8 p.m., provides a sliver of frigid comfort in that it reminds viewers that we’ve been here before, and that Mueller, along with former FBI Director James Comey, previously thwarted fierce threats to the rule of law under the administration of George W. Bush.Looking even further back, “Enemies” shows the role the Federal Bureau of Investigation has played in bringing to light the details of the Iran-Contra Affair that took place under Ronald Reagan’s watch and, of course, the part it played in exposing Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.

And it also shows the ways in which the agency has been used for partisan purposes, particularly during the Clinton presidency, when a conservative-led Congress used its power to hammer away at the Democratic president’s reputation and political pull.

Calling upon Weiner and a cadre of other journalists and government officials past and present, series directors Jed Rothstein and Alex Gibney (who executive produces this project as well as A&E’s “The Clinton Affair”) take an agile approach to these chapters.

“Enemies” is an energetic walk through history, but one that calls out its refrains while recognizing the unique challenges this particular president poses to the Justice Department and intelligence agencies.

But as Weiner discussed with Salon, Trump’s stance towards the pillars of government and the Fourth Estate differs substantially from the adversarial approach taken by other chapters. In addition to pushing the limits of his powers, knowing he has an enabling Senate at his back, he also takes advantage of a base who believes him above all others. When he impugns the honesty of his intelligence branches over social media or in press conference, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Even so, this is the season in which Dick's Wolf’s CBS procedural “FBI” debuted to about 10 million viewers, has been holding steady in the ratings and has been picked up for a full season.

So it could be that the larger public isn’t necessarily buying into the president’s toxic political theater.

“You know, everybody loves a good spy story and everybody loves a good FBI procedural, and they have since 'I Spy' and 'Dragnet' . . . They had a series called 'The FBI' from Efrem Zimbalist in the '60s,” Weiner said, explaining that he draws a “bright line” between works of fiction and non-fiction.

But, he added, “Who could dream up Donald Trump? Who could dream up Matt Whitaker? And who could, in their wildest nightmares, conceive of the reality that confronts us every nanosecond right now?”

In our conversation, Weiner discusses the resilience of the rule of law, the health of our democracy’s system of check and balances, and why “Enemies” ends with firing of Comey (whose audiobook readings are featured in lieu of an interview, which he declined to do) and his public statements about his experiences with Trump.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Maybe I'm just numb at this point, but it certainly seems like if there were ever a president who could really get around the FBI’s ability to enforce the law, but would be this one. Is it possible that Donald Trump may be able to succeed where Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon did not?

As arrogant and as Trump appears to be, he cannot break the Constitution, and he cannot break the rule of law. He can break the law, and I would argue that he has on several fronts but the rule law cannot be broken. It can be damaged, and it can be attacked, but we are still a government of laws.

He may have shot himself in the foot by firing Comey and in my view, obstructed justice and violated his oath of office. He may well draw his gun and shoot himself in the other foot by attempting to rid himself of Mueller. I don't think can do that, but he can try.

Even if he does that, he cannot fire the FBI. The FBI will still be on the case. The assistant United States attorneys who are already handling indictments in D.C., in Virginia and in New York will carry on in Mueller’s stead. And short of bringing down the entire command structure of the Justice Department and the FBI along with it, which I don't believe he can do, Trump is powerless to stop that.

One of the things I need to ask you about is the major event of last week. Everyone was — is shockedthe word?

Transfixed.

Transfixed. Yes, that's apt — by the ouster of Jeff Sessions and Trump naming Matt Whitaker as the acting Attorney General. I wanted to get your take on that development, particularly given that this documentary is airing on its heels.

There is a parallel. The shock was not that Sessions was fired. The shock was that this stooge was named to run the Justice Department.

The parallel is Nixon appointing a lackey, L. Patrick Gray, as the acting director of the FBI after [J. Edgar] Hoover died. I've listened to every Watergate tape and the exchanges between Nixon and Gray. Nixon at one point tells Gray – and Nixon knows that Mark Felt is Deep Throat, he knows that 10 days after the first Washington Post story that cited Felt's work appeared, that's on tape — Nixon at one point tells Gray that he should line up every FBI agent in the Washington field office and do like the Germans did in World War II, and say, "One of you is a traitor. Either the traitor steps forward or you're all going to be shot."

Gray actually attempted to do that. Not shoot them, but he lined up the top agents in Washington said, "Who among you is the traitor?" And nobody stepped forward because Felt wasn't in the lineup. I don't think anyone would have stepped forward anyway. And this only redoubled the agents' will and their resolve to investigate this case. Gray as we know, after destroying evidence and perjuring himself before Congress, went down. He went down hard.

If Whitaker acts to shut down Muller, he too will be guilty of obstruction of justice and a conspirator in that crime.

But who would hold him accountable for that? There have been reams of print devoted to the opinion that our system of checks and balances has failed. And to a certain degree we the see this affirmed in "Enemies." At one point an interview subject says, "You know, if you're a popular enough as a president, you can get away with a lot."

But not with murder.

That's not what Trump says.

OK, then: Trump, to the contrary notwithstanding, not with murder.

Right. So when we're looking at this in the context of the documentary, what exactly is the Sessions story telling us about all of these viewpoints that the way that democracy is operating right now is proof that the system of checks and balances is broken? At the start of our conversation you said that you can't break the Constitution, but there have certainly been a lot of arguments that it is bowing a whole lot right now.

At every important turn, where Trump has committed abuses and outrages against the law and the Constitution — not every, but almost every turn — the courts have turned him back. Yes, he got part of his so-called Muslim ban and ratified. But that's about it.

The walls are closing in on this man. It may not be next Friday, but at some Friday in future, Mueller's grand jury is going to weigh in with new indictments. The suit on the emoluments clause is proceeding. And that is a great danger to Trump because his business records will be discoverable in open court. The new Congress is going to rain down subpoenas like hellfire come January.

And Mueller is going to do his job. And if Trump has the temerity to use Whitaker or his own executive power to try and cut Mueller's throat, he will pay a very heavy price for that. He will not be able to successfully impede either the criminal investigation or the counter intelligence investigation that is moving toward the Oval Office.

Let's switch gears here just slightly. You originally published "Enemies" in 2012, right?

Yep.

Did you ever imagine that you would be in a situation like this where you would see someone who is so clearly testing the limits of the FBI and the intelligence community?

You know, every 10 or 12 years comes a great political and Constitutional crisis precipitated by a law-breaking precedent. Twelve years after Watergate came the Iran Contra imbroglio. Twelve years after that came Clinton's impeachment. Six years after that came the confrontation between Bush and Cheney on the one hand, and Mueller and Comey on the other, on the illegal spying on Americans post 9/11.

And here we are: We had an eight-year break against lawless presidential conduct under Obama. So it's now been 14 years since the last Constitutional crisis. But this one is deeper, I think, than any that has gone before it. And we were about two tweets away from the worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War in this country.

Isn't that frightening.

Yeah. But you know, be not afraid. Even now, with a lawless President, there are powerful checks against him. The courts — Brett Kavanaugh to the contrary notwithstanding — the courts in this country do not countenance broad attacks on the Constitution. And they, I believe, will be bulwarks against this president. And I cannot emphasize enough, that the 21st century FBI is Mueller's FBI. It is not J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. It is not the FBI of Louis Freeh, who was the director under Clinton.

Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it has a long history of extra-constitutional conduct. Yes, there are weak-willed or basely-motivated people within its ranks. But it's Mueller's FBI. He ran it for 12 years, which is longer than anybody, save Hoover. And it is in great part a reflective of his rectitude.

Why does the series end at the Comey firing and his testimony? I'm imagining that a number of people who view it may have questions as to why it halted there, given everything that's happened since.

It's the fact of Mueller and Comey, the two men who ran the FBI from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2017 — 15 and a half years — who are now, by turns, special counsel and star witness.

It’s reminding people about how they teamed up to stop President Bush's assault on the Constitution, and trying to drive home that when Trump fired Comey, the counter-intelligence investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 election became a criminal investigation, led to the appointment of Mueller and lead to a charge for Mueller that he could investigate anything. He was not delimited to the question of Russia.

You can bet your bottom dollar that there is going to be a sequel. And we talked, the directors, producers and Alex and I, we talked more than once about, you know, when we get to that Sunday in November, what Mueller brings the hammer down on that Friday? The grand jury meets on Fridays. And you know, we decided we'd just saddle up and start again.

You know, I've been a reporter on deadline most of my life. You gotta press the button. You gotta hit 'send.’

A book needs a back cover. So we've got to decide what is the strongest structure that we can present.

Are you going to be releasing a new edition of "Enemies" that includes this new chapter?

No.

Is it going to be its own book?

I'm writing a book now, but it's bad luck to talk about what it is. But it will most certainly include the Trump presidency.

So we have a TV-obsessed president, and a president that was in very a real way created by television, doing his best to besmirch entire institutions — the press are the enemies of the people, or calling into question the legitimacy of the intelligence branches of government —

He called them Nazis.

Right. Specifically when it comes to the intelligence branches, the FBI and the CIA, in the public image battle that many have said Trump is skilled at waging — which seems to be proven correctly a lot, sadly — which entity is winning that battle?

The reality-based community. The people who ferret out secrets and mysteries. The people who investigate complicated crimes. They're under threat. But they are winning and they will win in the end.

The argument from Trump's base is that he's winning this fight. Can you say why, when you make that assessment, the reality-based community will win the end?

I think Mark Twain said that a lie can go around the world before the truth has a chance get its pants on. The truth is fully clothed and is saddling up. I am an optimist on this front. We got through the Civil War. We got through Vietnam, we got through Nixon. We got through many and varied assaults on the Constitution and the rule of law after Watergate. And we're going to get through this.

However: No free republic in the history of civilization has ever lasted longer than 300 years. And that was the Roman Empire. We are pushing 250.

I was hoping you would leave this conversation on an optimistic note.

All right. I will.

If we can get through Donald Trump, we have a fighting chance outlasting the Roman Empire as a free republic. America is not going to be run by old white men over the next half century. It's going to be run by people who look like the freshman Congress coming in: 61 duly elected members of Congress, of whom 19 are white men. There will come a time — in two years, I hope — that Donald Trump will be a citizen again and subjected to the rule of law in full.

 

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Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision