In Donald Trump’s America, there really are two Americas.
In one, America’s intelligence community caught wind of the fact that Russia was attempting to influence the various inexperienced and sketchy members of the Trump campaign, and sought to investigate this possibly dangerous behavior, using various methods at their disposal, including confidential informants on the inside.
In the other America—and make no mistake, there are tens of millions living in this alternative universe—the Obama administration sought to wiretap and spy on the Trump campaign for completely nefarious reasons. They were out to get him from day one.
There are several problems with this second option. First, of course, you have to believe that the intelligence community is wholly corrupt and utterly politicized—that there was a conspiracy (at least, at the top) to stop Trump from becoming president. If this was their goal, they failed miserably by helping him win. Or maybe you believe the “deep state” assumed Clinton would win without their help, but are now working in overdrive to coordinate a “deep-state coup” to remove him. Either way, this requires a conspiratorial mind.
This brings us to the latest development. On Sunday, President Trump tweeted: “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes—and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
Within hours, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein responded with a statement, saying, “If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action.”
Some see this as caving to Trump’s demands, but I see it as incredibly shrewd. Rosenstein reaffirmed that he (not Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation) is in charge of this. Moreover, it establishes that Trump’s tweets are official statements. And lastly, of course, Rosenstein framed it exactly right as he handed the investigation off to the inspector general to investigate: The question is if anyone infiltrated or surveiled a campaign for “inappropriate purposes.”
For those who don’t appreciate the seriousness of what Trump did on Sunday, one knowledgeable insider predicted that Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray would resign before complying with Trump’s demand for a DOJ investigation.
The other day, I had breakfast with a Russian opposition leader at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington (having watched too many episodes of The Americans, I wondered if we were being watched or, at the very least, if I might end up on some report filed that day in Moscow). My new friend is worried that America might be headed toward Putinism, but is also cautiously optimistic that Trump will serve as a sort of “stress test” that helps us fix any holes in our system. In short, he sees that Trump has the same authoritarian tendencies as Putin, but is relieved that our institutions are (mostly) working to contain him.
The scary thing is that these institutions rest on the shoulders of men and women. If Sessions had resigned (when I wrongly said he should), these institutions would have been weakened. The same could be said for Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, and many others who represent the law enforcement community.
Which brings me to my final point. It seems high time for the institution of Congress to step up. Make no mistake, what Trump said on Sunday was a big deal. Imagine, for a second, that this was a Democratic president ordering a Democratic attorney general to investigate the last Republican administration. Imagine any president making this instruction to any AG. It's a step beyond where we've been, but it is consistent with Trump’s M.O., which is to accuse others of the thing he has been accused of doing.
Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should make it clear that they view Trump’s tweet as having crossed the line. Likewise, as chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Trey Gowdy (who, like Ryan, is choosing to step away from the fight—which means he has little to lose) should publicly speak out on this.
The (apocryphal) line often attributed to Edmund Burke—“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”—is especially true today.
Our institutions are only as strong as the people leading them. Will Congress answer the call?