President Donald Trump is again attacking the media on Monday, and his broadsides carry a newly ominous edge: He is both faulting the media for allegedly downplaying the size and intensity of support from his base and accusing them of trying to deliberately weaken that support for him.
This comes some 24 hours after Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein made big news by telling Fox News Sunday that if the special counsel finds evidence of crimes in the course of his probe into Russian sabotage of our election, it may be within the scope of his investigation to pursue them.
In these seemingly disparate developments, it is hard not to discern the potential for a volatile, combustible combination.
Because Trump is undermining our democratic norms and processes in so many ways, it is often easy to focus on each of them in isolation, rather than as part of the same larger story. But, taken together, they point to a possible climax in which Trump, cornered by revelations unearthed by Robert S. Mueller III's probe and by ongoing media scrutiny, seeks to rally his supporters behind the idea that this outcome represents not the imposition of accountability by functioning civic institutions, but rather an effort to steal the election from him - and from them.
On ABC's This Week, Trump counsellor Kellyanne Conway on Sunday dismissed the “entire Russia investigation” as a “total fabrication” to “excuse” Hillary Clinton's loss. This echoed Trump himself, who recently told a rally that the probe is an effort to “cheat” his supporters out of their legitimately elected leadership (i.e., him) with a “fake story” that is “demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
It bears repeating that Mueller's investigation is looking at how a hostile foreign power may have sabotaged our democracy, and at whether the Trump campaign colluded with it, and at conduct by Trump himself that came after the election: Whether the firing of former FBI Director James Comey after a demand for his loyalty was part of a pattern of obstruction of justice. The first of these has been attested to by our intelligence services, and evidence of the second (at least in the form of a willingness to collude) and the third of these has been unearthed by dogged scrutiny by news outlets. It is hardly an accident that Trump continues to cast doubt on the credibility of both those institutions, even as he and his spokespeople continue to cast the entire affair as an effort to reverse the election by illegitimate means.
This threatens damage on multiple levels. By casting the entire Russia story as fiction, Trump seeks to undermine the credibility of efforts to determine how our electoral system might be vulnerable to further attacks, separate and irrespective of what is learned about the Trump campaign's conduct, possibly making it less likely that we secure our system against any such future sabotage.
We don't know what all the ongoing scrutiny will produce in the way of revelations. But if it does produce any serious wrongdoing by Trump and/or his campaign - or even evidence of serious misconduct that is not criminal - it's not difficult to imagine what might happen next. Trump's advisers regularly tell us he will cooperate with Mueller's probe and play down the possibility of any effort to remove the special counsel. But Trump has confirmed that he is furious with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for failing to protect him from Mueller's probe. That Trump confirmed this publicly only further underscores that he has zero sense of any obligation to the public to follow any rules of conduct, and plainly views any efforts to hold him accountable to those rules as illegitimate.
Conservative writer Matt Lewis floats a scenario in which Mueller, under pressure to produce results, slips into prosecutorial overreach, giving Trump voters legitimate reasons to feel that the presidency is being stolen from them. It is fair to worry about such an outcome, and we must remember that we are far from knowing the full truth about what happened in 2016. But it's also easy to envision the flip side: Trump demagoguing his supporters into a frenzy of rage, at rallies that are exactly like the ones we've seen in recent days, in the face of legitimate revelations.
To be sure, there are new signs that Republicans in Congress are taking steps to set up safeguards, should Trump try to remove Mueller. There is reassuring evidence that our institutions are holding - for now, anyway - and as Brian Beutler notes in The New Republic, it's likely that more future revelations about Trump's unfitness for the presidency will further undercut his efforts to cast institutions holding him accountable as illegitimate. But Trump is already giving every indication that he will go all out in trying. And how much damage that will cause is anyone's guess.
The Washington Post
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