As we come to the end of this eventful and exhausting year, awards season is upon us. One of the major trophies given out each December is the not-so-coveted "Lie of the Year" from PolitiFact. President Donald Trump can pretty much be expected to get the award every year he's in office, since he is the Meryl Streep of mendacity. But it's always going to be tough to choose which whopper will win the big prize. This year it was easy. The 2017 Lie of the Year is: Russian election interference is a "made-up story."
It's obvious that it happened, and it's obvious that the president continues to lie about it for a reason. There is a school of thought that says he refuses to acknowledge the facts because his ego is so huge that he can't admit that he didn't win solely by dint of his massive talent. Therefore he characterizes it as a Democratic plot to delegitimize his glorious victory, which he also continues to claim was a landslide. The problem, of course, is that four of his top advisers have now been indicted, and two have pleaded guilty to crimes having to do with Russia. Despite Trump and his associates' continued insistence that they knew nothing of the Russians, we know that members of the Trump team had at least 19 meetings among 31 interactions with various Russian emissaries.
Robert Mueller's investigation is getting close to the president and his family now. And as I wrote earlier this week, the Republicans are fighting back. They are not only calling for Mueller to resign over the bogus Uranium One scandal and for palling around with James Comey, they are demanding more investigations into Hillary Clinton's emails and calling the FBI itself corrupt and downright treasonous.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, a Trump ally, said on talk radio this week that Mueller was staging a coup d'état and "we’ve got to stop the coup before it becomes successful and these yahoos throw us into a civil war." Donald Trump Jr.'s legal team is calling for an investigation into Reps. Adam Schiff, Jackie Speier and Eric Swalwell, California Democrats and members of the House Intelligence Committee, for alleged leaks to the media.
Everyone in the Congress and the right-wing media is rending their garments over FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, who worked on the all-important Clinton email case and the Russia investigation. He was dismissed by Mueller last summer when the latter found out that Strzok had privately texted his prosecutor girlfriend that Trump was an "idiot" and a "douche," among other perfectly reasonable observations.
The New York Times reported last night that the texts showed concerns about Trump winning, which was also perfectly reasonable if you happened to be working on a case in which it became clear that a presidential candidate had extremely suspicious ties to the Russian government. The Times points out that these texts were found during the current investigation by the Department of Justice's inspector general into, yes, the Clinton email investigation and the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia.
It's unprecedented for the DOJ to release documents such as this before an investigation is finished, but everyone assumes that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing a solid for his president by getting it out there. It's only a matter of time before someone asks for an investigation to look into the Strzok matter as well, although -- despite Trump loyalists' hysterical assertions to the contrary -- FBI agents are allowed to have political views. Indeed, most of them are conservative Republicans.
Finally, Axios has reported that Trump's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, read a Fox News article which said that a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr, "demoted last week for concealing his meetings with the men behind the anti-Trump 'dossier' had even closer ties to Fusion GPS, the firm responsible for the incendiary document, than have been disclosed." Ohr's wife apparently worked for Fusion GPS during the 2016 election, and Sekulow now wants Jeff Sessions to appoint a different special prosecutor to investigate Mueller's investigation over possible conflicts of interest. There are so many investigations and calls for investigations that they're all chasing each others tails.
We know the point of all this: Create as much smoke as possible to obscure what's really happening, which is that the Mueller investigation is coming closer to the president. Trump's allies in the media and the Congress are trying to discredit Mueller and potentially lay the groundwork for his firing and a series of presidential pardons, if it comes to that.
Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast reminds us that last summer a number of Republican senators became concerned enough about Trump possibly firing Mueller that they proposed bipartisan legislation to prevent the president from firing him. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., teamed up on a bill mandating that a special counsel can only be fired for cause. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., proposed requiring a three-judge panel to approve of any dismissal of a Special Counsel. Unfortunately, for obscure reasons, Graham seems to have since decided that enabling Trump is his best move. So it's unlikely he will follow through, at least right now.
But if Mueller closes in on the president, will Congress find the gumption to preserve the system or even its own prerogatives? So far it's not looking good.
Trump and his allies attack any independent institution that challenges the president's power, whether it be the political opposition, the media, the courts and now the Department of Justice. This is dangerous business. It's not just that the president's team exerts executive prerogatives. They use every tool at their disposal (and create new ones out of whole cloth) to degrade and discredit any threat to Donald Trump's dominance.
That's the mark of an authoritarian leader, and it's not how things normally work in the American system. We have all these competing centers of power, which are often in opposition but generally depend on a respect for each other's roles and a sense of responsibility to preserve the integrity of the system. The president is not adhering to those norms. The press is trying to keep the pressure on, but the other independent institutions have not yet been fully put to the test. It's only a matter of time before they are. We have no idea if they will meet the challenge.