PAUL CONNEW on the war of the words taking place in Capitol Hill and the chaotic world of Trump’s presidency
‘When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America… America will triumph over you.’
That was the tweeted response of the CIA’s widely-respected former director John Brennan to President Trump’s grotesque gloating over the firing of FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe just hours before his official retirement – a decision likely to cost the 21-year veteran his pension.
Earlier The Donald had tweeted that the sacking — for allegedly leaking to the media — was a ‘great day for democracy’. POTUS went on via Twitter: ‘Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest-levels of the FBI.’
But ex-CIA director Brennan was far from alone in expressing serious alarm. Former attorney general Eric Holder accused the current holder of the office, Jeff Sessions, of ‘dangerously caving-in to please an increasingly erratic president who should have played no role here’.
The Washington Post — the newspaper that brought down Richard Nixon over Watergate — also weighed in, branding Trump ‘a nasty, small-minded despot, not the leader of a democracy more than two centuries old in which rule of law is a sturdy pillar. If there is doubt that the timing of Mr McCabe’s dismissal was driven by political vengeance, Mr Trump does everything he can to prove the worst with his own sordid words’.
But the hugely significant and sinister issue behind this escalating war of words in yet another extraordinary and bloody week in the chaotic world of the Trump presidency is less McCabe’s fate but the survival of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian investigation. A week in which Vladimir Putin reinforced his autocratic power and The Donald nakedly displayed his autocratic aspirations.
Suddenly the spectre of a renewed bid by POTUS to axe Mueller is haunting Capitol Hill, with senior Democrats talking of seeking emergency legislation to protect the special counsel and some moderate Republicans indicating their support. Democrats have also warned they would seek to impeach Trump if he did move to rid himself of Mueller and shut down his investigation — although they would struggle to succeed on that front while the GOP controls both houses of Congress. But even among moderate Republicans there is a general acceptance that the timing and vindictiveness of attorney general Sessions’ dismissal of McCabe, who resigned back in January and has been on leave pending his official retirement date, was primarily driven by the man in the White House. The Donald, lest we forget, had long targeted McCabe while also mocking the attorney general and trying unsuccessfully (so far) to force the resignation of Sessions, once his closest political ally, for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation.
Timing is everything on several fronts in explaining the rapidly-spreading firestorm. McCabe is due shortly to be interviewed by the special counsel and his team. The departed FBI number two was quick to portray his dismissal as part of an attempt by the president to ‘undermine’ the Mueller investigation.
It also prompted an intervention by McCabe’s former boss James Comey — the FBI supremo sacked last year by POTUS over the Russian Connection issue, the move that largely triggered the special counsel investigation.
Comey, who has already been interviewed at least once by the Mueller team, tweeted this to Trump: ‘Mr President, the American people will hear my story very soon. And they can then judge for themselves who is honourable and who is not.’
That appeared to be a reference to both the special counsel probe in the long-term but in the short-term to a book Comey has written and which is due for publication in a few weeks time. Its title is A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, a play upon Trump’s alleged attempt to get Comey to pledge personal loyalty to him above his duty to uphold the law by dropping the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign.
According to some White House sources, the president has again floated the idea of trying to legally block Comey’s book, only to be advised by his own lawyers that — just as with Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book — it would be doomed to failure under the First Amendment.
And the signs of internal conflict among The Donald’s small army of private lawyers called in to handle the Mueller investigation are growing, and the last few days have exemplified that spectacularly.
Not least with the extraordinary behaviour of John Dowd, one of the president’s longest-serving attorneys, who publicly called on deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein (who oversees the Mueller investigation following Sessions recusing himself) to use his power to scrap the entire Russian Connection probe which he labelled ‘fraudulent and corrupt’.
Initially, Dowd told journalists he was speaking with the president’s authority as his lawyer. Only to row back hours later and claim he’d only done so ‘in a personal capacity’.
Behind the scenes other members of the legal team had been alarmed by Dowd’s action. But, to their private dismay, that didn’t deter POTUS himself leaping in with a Twitter tirade against special counsel Mueller personally.
Meanwhile a sign of both heightened panic and increased aggression came when Trump dramatically added controversial conservative lawyer and commentator Joseph diGenova to a leading role in his legal team. The new man, a one-time US attorney and white-collar crime expert, is an outspoken critic of former FBI chief Comey who he has labelled the ‘dirtiest cop in America’. He’s also written that the FBI and the Justice Department are trying to ‘frame’ the president by ‘creating a false crime of collusion’ with Russia.
His appointment has done nothing to dissuade Democrats and moderate Republicans from the mounting suspicion that Trump is secretly planning to risk firing Mueller — despite the denials of White House officials. One senior GOP senator told this paper: ‘The appointment of diGenova is a clear declaration of war against the special counsel and his investigation.’
POTUS’s targeting of Mueller is hugely telling because until now, on legal advice backed by wiser heads in the West Wing’s rapidly revolving door, his ‘witch hunt’ attacks on the inquiry had carefully avoided personal abuse against the special counsel. Indeed The Donald had called Mueller an ‘honourable man’ who he trusted to treat him fairly and with who he was committed to ‘co-operating fully’.
Now, it appears, Mueller is fair game for the wrath of an increasingly rattled and under-pressure POTUS. ‘The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime’, ran one tweet. Another asked: ‘Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters and Zero Republicans?’ Conveniently overlooking one significant fact: Robert Mueller himself is a registered Republican!
The violent presidential mood shift reflects several difficult developments. Among them is the list of preliminary questions the special counsel has sent the White House. Apparently they have rattled POTUS himself and hardened the resolve of those in his legal team opposed to exposing Trump to a forensic, under-oath, face-to-face interrogation despite the president’s previous boasts he looked forward to it.
Quite apart from questions linked directly to the 2016 election campaign, the list also reflects how deeply the special counsel’s team have been delving into the Trump family’s business history, including its connections to questionable oligarchs associated with the Kremlin and to President Putin personally.
Only a few months ago POTUS had ranted that extending the investigation into the Trump Organisation’s business record would ‘cross a red line’ and told some aides it would lead to him using his power to sack Mueller, kill his investigation and ‘to hell with any Congressional objections’.
Significantly, too, the president’s legal term are also aware of growing whispers Mueller now has access to British intelligence surveillance reports allegedly revealing ‘compromising communications’ between the Trump campaign and certain Russians close to the Kremlin during the 2016 election contest.
In addition, the president’s legal team are also privately worried by the fresh allegations in the Observer about the role Cambridge Analytica (where Trump’s campaign mastermind Steve Bannon was formerly vice-president) allegedly played in both the US election on behalf of Trump and the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK via the secret harvesting of the Facebook data of tens of millions of voters. Cambridge Analytica – which denies any wrong doing – is owned by the ultra-conservative, Trump-backing US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah.
The Observer disclosures, and the evidence of whistleblower Chris Wyllie, are now destined to trigger major new investigations in both the US Congress and the British parliament.