The situation with Donald Trump is worse than Watergate. President Nixon had his Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973 when he fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate break-in.
Nixon ordered first Attorney General Elliot Richardson and then Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, but both men refused and resigned in protest. By default, the Solicitor General Robert Bork became Attorney General. He followed Nixon’s orders and fired Cox. But justice prevailed, and DOJ avoided harm.
President Trump has not fired Robert Mueller—yet. However, he is doing considerable damage to DOJ and the FBI. He has fired or caused to be dismissed several people in the DOJ and FBI, and he has maneuvered DOJ into committing some damaging actions. Those fired include Sally Yates, Acting Attorney General; FBI Director James Comey; FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe; and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Several others were demoted or reassigned.
Trump is undermining the credibility of the DOJ and FBI with his onslaught of false statements and name calling. However, actions of these agencies have been problematic.
Sometimes they enabled Trump in his attacks on this institution. For example, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein prepared the document that was designed to provide cover for Trump in firing Comey, when as Trump soon admitted he dismissed Comey because of the Russia investigation.
But Comey had started the DOJ/FBI on the slippery slope back in 2016. Eleven days before the presidential election Comey announced that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State, this time on whether any of the emails had made their way to a laptop computer used by one of Clinton’s top aides and that aide’s husband. The data say this unwarranted October surprise by Comey cost Clinton the election.
Scholars examined data and produced four pieces of evidence showing FBI Director James Comey cost Clinton the election. Traditionally the FBI does not provide this kind of information about an investigation. Perhaps that would not have been so bad had Comey announced that the FBI was also investigating whether there was any cooperation between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. The FBI did not acknowledge this until after Trump’s inauguration.
DOJ released Comey’s memo notes about his meetings with Trump, even though this was part of the “evidence” for use by the Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller. They were responding to request from Trump’s Republican defenders in Congress.
FISA warrants enable the FBI to wiretap someone suspected of spying with or for a foreign government. Normally DOJ does not even admit their existence. And they never release these documents. Only they and a judge see these secret documents. DOJ caved in to Republicans in Congress and handed over the warrant which apparently created the Russia investigation. This means they handed over to Congressmen, known to be working to defend Trump, details of the case in a manner that is never done.
But they may have topped that action. The latest move is breathtaking in its abnormality. Last week Trump and his Republican defenders in Congress demanded information and received a briefing about some of FBI’s confidential sources and methods in the Russian Investigations. They omitted Democratic leaders in Congress from the first meeting, but Trump’s chief of staff and his lawyer were present. They later met with the so-called “gang of eight” which included a couple of Democratic leaders in Congress, a very questionable move nevertheless.
The once watertight operation of the DOJ is now full of holes. Whether or not Trump gets out of these entanglements, it may be difficult for the DOJ and the FBI ever to go back to the way it operated before Trump. Their wrong actions have created too many bad precedents.