Is that all there is? Not quite.
Against the advice of many of his advisors, Donald Trump authorized the release of a Republican-penned congressional memo about the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in 2016 presidential election.
The memo isn’t the “smoking gun” proving the FBI was biased against Trump that pro-Trump talking heads like Fox News’s Sean Hannity have promised. In fact, it seems to do the opposite—pointing out that a member of Trump’s campaign staff triggered the investigation, not the disputed “Golden Showers” memo. The president sees it differently, of course.
This makes it all the more tempting to dismiss the memo’s release as yet another strange attention-grabbing moment in Trump’s unorthodox presidency, one that we’ll all forget about when the next bizarre situation crops up.
Don’t do it.
The memo drama is the latest evidence that the US could be tumbling t0ward a constitutional crisis, a political situation that the institutions of government and the country’s founding documents are not up to the task of solving.
For the country and its people, the system that apportions specific powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches stands as a guarantee of the rule of law and a bulwark against authoritarian rule. When the intended balance is disturbed by one branch failing to follow the law or even long-standing standard protocol, the very idea of a representative democracy is threatened.
The current situation can be read as the US president choosing to favor the interests of the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin over those of American citizens. Already, the White House has refused to impose the latest Russian sanctions passed by Congress, while critics can say the memo seems to indicate that some Republican members of Congress are willing to forgo their sworn duty to protect the US from foreign interference, to shield Trump. (The president does have some discretion in enacting the sanctions. As Vox noted, “The president may waive sanctions if he determines that it is in the United States’ national security interests to do so.”)
Here is a worst-case scenario short list for the US. It’s a dark forecast, of how time-tested governmental practices could begin to unravel in America—if the worst is yet to come.
Normal political behavior is overtaken by the abnormal
The checks and balances that US democracy depends upon do not appear to be working, politicians from both parties warn.
“The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests—no party’s, no president’s, only Putin,” John McCain, a leading Senate Republican, said in a news release on Friday. “Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
Domino-like changes at the Department of Justice
Trump’s next step could be the firing of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Department of Justice official responsible for installing former FBI chief Robert Mueller as the head of the Russia investigation. If that happens, Democrats warn, the president would appear to be obstructing justice, and trigger a constitutional crisis akin to the “Saturday Night Massacre” firings that eventually would prove fatal to Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Asked whether he would fire Rosenstein yesterday (Feb. 2), Trump told reporters “You figure that one out,” which often is Trump-speak for “Yes.”
Firing Rosenstein could be a precursor for trying once again to remove Mueller. If Trump does fire Rosenstein or Mueller, White House aides worry the head of the FBI, Christoper Wray, may quit. Attorney General Jeff Sessions could also walk out the door—Session defended Rosenstein in public remarks on Friday, saying he “represents the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.”
Those vacancies could allow Trump to remake the justice department with new appointees hand-selected for their loyalty. They likely would be more amenable to dropping the investigation into Russian meddling, and to making decisions in general based on Trump’s wishes, not US law or custom.
Mass protests against Trump challenge the administration
Trump’s presidency has already been marked by protests, but the US may be in for much more. MoveOn and other groups have been organizing “Nobody is above the law” protest groups, set to kick off if Trump fires Mueller or takes “actions to prevent the Trump-Russia investigation from being conducted freely,” including replacing Rosenstein, or “repealing the regulations establishing the office.”
There are more than 700 protests planned around the country at this point. While anti-Trump protests have been mostly peaceful, the fatal clash in Charlottesville between white supremacists and counter-protesters show how badly things can go in a deeply divided country. And how will a president so focused on poll numbers and TV ratings—and who often misstates them—react to throngs of people continually turning out against him?
Russia messes with the 2018 elections
Russia’s aim in interfering with democratic elections worldwide is to sow chaos and promote respect for Putin. Trump’s election has done just that, leaving the US bitterly divided, and putting in power a leader whose policies are kinder to Putin and his oligarch cronies.
With dozens of Republicans retiring from Congress, Democrats hope they can take the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections, putting some curbs on Trump’s power. But there are growing fears that the 2018 elections will be compromised as well, including from intelligence chiefs, including the CIA’s Mike Pompeo, a Trump nominee.
“Various solutions have been proposed but none have been adopted” to prevent foreign interference in US elections, said Trevor Potter, a Republican commissioner of the Federal Election Commission. We’re just 10 months away from our next election, he said, and it is important to “think proactively,” otherwise “these types of actions threaten to undermine our democracy indefinitely.”
Read next: The Republican campaign to discredit the FBI—explained