Trump's big power grab: With the Bharara firing and the "deconstruction" of the executive branch, has he gone too far?

There are echoes of Richard Nixon in the president's attempts to purge disloyalty. Will it end as Nixon's term did?

By Bob Cesca
Published March 15, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)
 (Getty/Spencer Platt/Gary Gershoff)
(Getty/Spencer Platt/Gary Gershoff)

For many months now, I’ve been linking the events of Donald Trump's campaign and his presidency with the mind-blowing events of the Watergate crisis and specifically the Saturday Night Massacre.

Prior to November I thought for sure that Trump was capable of adopting the same treacherous means: In a single day in 1973 Richard Nixon fired two attorneys general in an effort to sabotage the investigation that eventually ended his presidency. Trump, I predicted, might fire a few key figures — perhaps intelligence community operatives probing his links to Russia. In fact, I expected he might have cleaned house of several pains in the ass at the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency as early as Day Two of his presidency, given his repeated demonization of the “intelligence community” (his scare quotes) during the transition.

Instead, Trump’s nefarious firings have far exceeded any forecasts, living up to his ironic “you’re fired” reality-show catchphrase.

Last week we learned that Trump asked for the immediate resignations of 46 federal prosecutors. On the surface, this isn't especially uncommon. President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, replaced all the existing U.S. attorneys, but did so in a way that retained continuity, with overlaps between outdoing and incoming regimes. Trump’s move was more of a sucker punch, not only in terms of how rapidly and unexpectedly it occurred, but also because it’s quite possible that he pulled the trigger on advice from Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

The day before the attorneys were asked for their resignations, Hannity tweeted: “Question of the Day: Should President Trump clean house and fire the Obama administration holdovers?” He added, “It's time for the Trump administration to purge the deep state saboteurs from the government . . . hear more at 10pm.” Naturally, Hannity followed up with a segment on his show that night.

The next day Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired 46 U.S. attorneys who served under President Barack Obama, including a bulldog-ish prosecutor named Preet Bharara. His jurisdiction, the Southern District of New York, happens to include Trump Tower and the Trump Organization. Maybe this is a coincidence, but Bharara's office had been alerted by three separate government ethics watchdog groups about Trump’s ongoing violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. That letter was delivered a day before Hannity’s rant and two days before the attorney firings. As we all know by now, Bharara refused to resign, not unlike Nixon’s attorneys general, Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. So, like Nixon, Trump personally fired Bharara last Friday.

It turns out that Bharara wasn’t just an existential threat for the Trump Organization. He also had been actively prosecuting a little known cable news network called Fox News, which happens to employ Sean Hannity and Trump’s primary news sources, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade. Indeed, on Monday, a grand jury was convened to probe Fox News.

Oh, and one of the names floated as a possible replacement for Bharara is a prosecutor named Marc Mukasey. One of Mukasey’s former clients is a television agitprop wizard named Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News.

It’s more than obvious what’s going on here. Trump is abusing his executive powers in order to thwart any and all roadblocks against his rising autocratic regime, including his ongoing Putin-esque kleptocratic cash grab via his continued refusal to divest his stake in his business operations while serving as president.

To make matters worse, we learned Monday morning that Trump would be signing an executive order calling for the restructuring of the executive branch — a full one-third of the entire U.S. federal government. If you happen to believe he’s doing this as a speedy budget-cutting measure, I have some robot insurance to sell you.

According to the order, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s head of the Office and Management and Budget, has been tasked with assembling a list of federal agencies to be eliminated. Obviously, this is part of Steve Bannon’s effort to deconstruct “the administrative state.” Based on his actions so far, there’s simply no way this is merely that scene from “Dave” in which the Cabinet jiggers the budget with a pencil and a legal pad — though it’s safe to assume that Trump’s fanboys will see it that way. This is about consolidating power and eliminating anything and anyone that might get in the way of Trump’s power grab.

Remember when the president said during his inaugural that he’s handing power back to the people? That was cute.

While I thought there might be a Saturday Night Massacre during Trump's first 100 days, this is clearly more than a massacre. It’s a genocide of those who Trump perceives as disloyal, on the way to full-on autocracy in the style of Putin or Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We’re talking about thousands of federal employees and entire agencies being potentially lost in the Trump propeller.

There’s a sole point of hope here, though, and it’s the consequence of Trump’s love affair with the giggling couch tumors at "Fox & Friends." On Monday, the Trump Justice Department asked congressional investigators for more time to produce evidence of Trump’s Doocy-inspired tweets about wiretaps allegedly ordered by President Barack Obama. Congress is calling Trump’s stupid bluff.

As well as being embarrassing for the administration, the demand for evidence and Trump’s reluctance to provide any (because it doesn’t exist) could lead to subpoenas. And subpoenas could lead to Trump officials, including perhaps Trump himself, testifying under oath. If Trump lies under oath, that’s perjury and that’s the ball game (see also the Clinton impeachment). Odds are that the entire wiretap story, with its magical microwaves and Inspector Gadget references, will evaporate into nothingness. But there’s also a chance it could heat up, given the seriousness of the charges, not to mention the seriousness of a sitting president accusing a former president of felonious surveillance.

Watergate brought down the most criminally malignant president in American history. Trump’s activities, including his apparent web of collusion with the Russians, make Nixon look like a saint. But successfully prosecuting Trump will be more difficult than we ever could have imagined.

Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.