President Trump now is said by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other supporters to be considering firing new special counsel Robert Mueller and dismissing the whole Russian meddling investigation as fake news. Could even Donald Trump be so politically tuned out to invite more suspicion of his motives, judgment and stability?
By all odds, former FBI Director James Comey outsmarted and outraged the new president last week with the premature release of the transcript of his prepared opening statement on his own firing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In it, Mr. Comey specified that Mr. Trump at a one-on-one dinner said he hoped Mr. Comey could see his way clear to let go of the investigation of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. The former general had misled Vice President Mike Pence in denying he had certain conversations with the Russian ambassador. That and other potentially incriminating charges got wide circulation in the American news media.
Mr. Trump, foiled by the Comey opening gambit, did not attempt a point-by-point repudiation, as many faithful Twitter followers might have expected. Instead, he temporarily put aside his usual early morning tweetstorm and settled for a broad brush dismissal of Mr. Comey's precisely implied argument that Mr. Trump was bringing a case of obstruction of justice upon himself.
Mr. Comey, in his written transcript of the meeting with Mr. Trump, which he testified he had begun putting down on paper upon leaving the White House dinner, described the care that Mr. Trump took to express his "hope" that Mr. Comey would drop any charges of misbehavior by Mr. Flynn. After another meeting, said to have concerned counterterrorism matters, Mr. Trump cleared the room of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and also shooed away White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, before making his pitch to Mr. Comey to go easy on Mr. Flynn.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Comey wrote that he saw in Mr. Trump's actions a calculated attempt to put the FBI director in his debt, by asking him three times whether he wanted to remain FBI director, when Mr. Comey had already said so. Mr. Comey told the Intelligence Committee he never considered yielding to Mr. Trump's implied threat, and Mr. Trump subsequently fired him.
Mr. Comey's open defiance led Mr. Trump to play the "fake news" card. He insisted the entire public furor over extensive Russian hacking and other meddling in the 2016 American presidential campaign was a lame alibi for the Democrats' failure to stop his election. Mr. Trump dismissed out of hand the broad consensus in the U.S. intelligence community that the evidence of Russian hacking was irrefutable.
If one tactical mistake was made by Mr. Comey in this dramatic political chess match, it was his decision to enlist a friend, voluntarily disclosed as a Columbia Law School professor, to slip the transcript of his one-on-one meeting with Mr. Trump to a New York Times reporter, who got it into print. Mr. Comey openly said he had done so to facilitate the case being pursued by Mr. Mueller, a former FBI director.
The maneuver probably wasn't necessary, as Mr. Mueller likely would have taken over the investigation anyway. But Mr. Comey, in what could be read as being too clever by half, gave Mr. Trump and his allies grounds to argue that he had been guilty of "leaking." Yet Mr. Comey's statement to the committee, given as a private citizen no longer in government employ, contained no classified material, so he could do whatever he chose with it. What he did was not a "leak" in the common sense of the term, but a move to warn of an official's threatened effort to obstruct the justifiable flow of justice through exertion of unwarranted power.
Such obstruction by a suspect American president for any reason is grounds for impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by a court of the Senate, by a two-thirds vote. It's a high barrier, and should be, to override the will of the voters. That seems to be the course our political leaders are flirting with now, with the outcome far from certain.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.