President Donald Trump was so angry that FBI Director James Comey refused to drop the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and publicly declare that the president himself wasn't under investigation that he put himself in the crosshairs of a criminal case. On Wednesday night The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating the president for possible obstruction of justice. Trump can complain forever about this being a witch hunt, but he brought this new problem entirely on himself. According to Politico, he's obsessed:
Trump, for months, has bristled almost daily at the ongoing probes. He has sometimes, without prompting, injected, “I’m not under investigation” into conversations with associates and allies. He has watched hours of TV coverage every day — sometimes even storing morning news shows on his TiVo to watch in the evening — and complained nonstop.
This is not a mentally healthy person. And just as he decided that Comey was a bad man, he has now decided that Mueller is one as well. This came on Thursday morning:
Immediately after the news broke that Mueller was planning to interview intelligence officials to determine if Trump had asked them to intervene, thus confirming an obstruction investigation, the White House disseminated a hastily written, embarrassing list of talking points that was promptly leaked to the press. Trump in his own inimitable way echoed it with his plaintive early morning whine.
As Salon's Matthew Rozsa has pointed out, Trump's most ardent supporters followed the talking points as well, starting with Sean Hannity on his Fox News show Wednesday night, who called for both Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who appointed Mueller) to resign immediately. Andrew McCarthy of National Review said the special counsel was unnecessary, as did bomb-throwing author Ann Coulter.
None of the defenders have been more obnoxiously combative than former House Speaker and Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich. He has been vociferous in his condemnation of Mueller in recent days, despite a glowing endorsement just three weeks ago:
By last weekend Gingrich had changed his tune, telling a radio-show host that Congress should abolish Mueller's office because James Comey "makes so clear that it's the poison fruit of a deliberate manipulation by the FBI director leaking to The New York Times, deliberately set up this particular situation. It's very sick." Talk show host Laura Ingraham agreed.
By Thursday Gingrich had gone full Breitbart and was bleating incoherently about a "deep state" conspiracy:
Gingrich is selling a book called "Understanding Trump," so that explains a lot of this. And he's always been hyperbolic and overwrought. But he's also always been a hard-core national security hawk, so his sudden concern for the encroachments of the surveillance state is pretty rich. Donald Trump is the first and only American citizen he's ever defended against the "deep state."
While there is a strong push among right-wing activists and Trump's surrogates to delegitimize Mueller, aside from a few gadflies like Rep. Steve King of Iowa most elected officials are maintaining support for the special counsel for the time being. But conservative activists are following a well-worn playbook. This was the strategy employed by Bill Clinton's defenders back in the 1990s during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Portraying independent counsel Kenneth Starr as a zealot and a partisan was a highly successful tactic to keep the public on their side.
Clinton, too, got in trouble for a cover-up. In his case he was trying to keep an extramarital affair secret, much as millions of people have done before. He was charged with perjury for lying in a deposition about the affair and also accused of obstruction of justice for asking friends to find Lewinsky a job, which was interpreted as an attempt to keep her quiet.
According to Gallup, Clinton received the highest job approval ratings of his administration during the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment process. As the situation unfolded, Clinton's job approval ratings went up, not down, and ratings remained high throughout the impeachment proceedings and his Senate trial. Members of the public stuck with him throughout not because they thought he was innocent — virtually nobody did — but because they believed these personal failings were frivolous reasons to impeach a duly elected president. The underlying crime for his alleged perjury and obstruction didn't rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
It's too early to tell whether the public will rally to support Donald Trump in similar fashion, but so far it's not looking good. His approval rating is bouncing between 35 percent and 40 percent at the moment, which is dreadful for a president just 145 days into his first term. According to a new Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, 68 percent of the Americans surveyed were at least moderately concerned about the possibility that Trump or his campaign associates had inappropriate ties to Russia and 60 percent of them said they think Trump attempted to obstruct or impede the investigation, as well as 25 percent of the Republicans. Only 22 percent of the Americans surveyed said they approved of Trump's firing of Comey.
It may turn out that Trump didn't technically obstruct justice. He may not have been personally involved in the Russian campaign to interfere in the election. Time will tell. But his behavior is nonetheless very troubling on a far more serious level than Bill Clinton's hedging on the meaning of "is" and trying to get Monica Lewinsky a job. Trump refuses to accept that anything untoward happened during the 2016 presidential campaign at all.
This is why the Clinton-Ken Starr playbook won't work. This scandal isn't about a sexual dalliance or even a "third-rate burglary," as was the case with Watergate. It is about a foreign country interfering in our democratic processes and potentially infiltrating a presidential campaign. It's a counterintelligence investigation that has now reached all the way into the Oval Office. It doesn't get any more serious than that.
Despite this, our president is having public tantrums on social media and his surrogates are acting as though it's all a game. The White House is in chaos and the Republican leadership can barely acknowledge that there's a problem. Robert Mueller and his team of investigators are the only ones involved in this crisis who seem to be competent professionals. The American people have nowhere else to turn.