By JULES WITCOVER
After months of chasing lesser suspicions of general political malevolence by Donald Trump, the investigative arm of the U.S. government appears finally to be focusing on the one feasible avenue to force him from the presidency: the charge of obstruction of justice.
The newly appointed Justice Department special counsel, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director highly regarded in both major political parties, has made it known he has broadened the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He’s said now to be searching for evidence that Trump may have asserted illegal pressures on other administration officials to impede or end allegations of improper behavior by former Gen. Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser in dealing with the Russians.
Trump fired Flynn shortly after it was revealed he had misled Vice President Mike Pence in not disclosing his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Subsequently, Trump also fired FBI Director James Comey, who later told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the president had urged him to drop further charges against Flynn.
Three other administration officials, Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, have been called upon to tell Congress why they would not confirm that Trump had asked each of them to do a similar favor regarding Flynn.
Earlier last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also declined to discuss related conversations with the president on grounds that Justice Department policy required him to protect the chief executive’s privacy. Trump, however, has not yet invoked any such “executive privilege” in the matter.
After a Trump associate speculated that the president might fire Mueller before he took any action, the president once again took to Twitter to complain about “fake news” from his political foes. “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice,” he tweeted Thursday. Trump blamed “very bad and conflicted people,” charging that “you are witnessing the single greatest witch hunt in American political history.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has emerged as a one-man Trump echo chamber, added his own tweet: “Mueller is now clearly the tip of the deep state spear aimed at destroying, or at a minimum undermining and crippling the Trump presidency. Mueller is setting up a dragnet of obstruction in every aspect of Trump’s life and his associates’ lives. Very dangerous.”
Thus are the battle lines being drawn for the inevitable campaign against Trump’s defiance of the law, triggered when Comey tactically handed the chore to Mueller. Comey openly acknowledged that was his purpose in making public his written recollections of his private conversation with Trump, in which the president allegedly urged Comey to “let go” the charges against Flynn.
Sessions in his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony last week shed no new light on the Russian cyber-attacks on the 2016 election. So Mueller’s enlarged focus on possible Trump obstruction of justice brings the political narrative closer to the first impeachment crisis since the Bill Clinton sex scandal of more than 20 years ago.
That episode produced much embarrassment to the incumbent, but he escaped conviction when fellow Democratic senators held their noses and voted his acquittal. With many Republicans in Congress cool to Trump but showing few signs yet of being ready to kick him out of the Oval Office, the country could well be on course to another lengthy and empty exercise.
Meanwhile, the prospects for a productive legislative session despite Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House seem more remote than ever. The prime GOP and Trump promise of the last election to “repeal and replace Obamacare” is entangled in secrecy, amid internal party disputes over cost and access to essential services for millions of previous beneficiaries.
Barely five months into his presidency, Trump has done little to make America great again and much to spread disunity and uncertainty at home, under a darkening cloud of misconduct.