Trump, Putin and a Test of Presidential Power
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The president of the United States phoned into Fox News on Saturday night for a non-interview interview about the non-emergency emergency along the southern border.
About eight minutes into the 22-minute bit of stagecraft, the Fox host, Jeanine Pirro, changed topics and asked President Donald Trump about a New York Times article from the night before that revealed new details about federal probes into his possible links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Times disclosed that after Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, who was analyzing Russian efforts to sabotage the 2016 presidential campaign, the FBI was so alarmed it began examining whether Trump himself had been “working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”
Pirro embraced the moment, chuckling slightly and teeing up what should have been a softball question. “So, I’m going to ask you: Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?”
Trump had a number of routes he might have taken in response to Pirro. The best would have been simply saying “no.” Instead, he bobbed, weaved and never answered the question directly.
"I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump said. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written and if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing."
Trump had already spent Saturday morning using his Twitter feed to slag the Times, Comey, the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Democrats for orchestrating groundless investigations, and he continued his food fight on Pirro’s show — lobbing insult after insult but never answering a straightforward question in a straightforward way.
Later in their conversation, Pirro and Trump chatted about another piece of hard-won reporting the Washington Post published Saturday morning. The Post disclosed that Trump had “gone to extraordinary lengths” to bury details of conversations he had with Putin, including “on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials.” The net effect of Trump’s maneuvers, the Post noted, is that there now isn’t a detailed record — even in the federal government’s classified files — of his personal conversations with Putin at five locations over the past two years.
A reasonable person might wonder if the president has been going out of his way to hide something. The president was less concerned. "I’m not keeping anything under wraps. I couldn’t care less,” Trump said. “I mean, it’s so ridiculous, these people make it up."
Trump also told Pirro that there’s no reason to be unduly alarmed by his various intersections with Russia’s leader. “Think of it: I have a one-on-one meeting with Putin like I do with every other leader, I have many one-on-one, nobody ever says anything about it. But with Putin they say, ‘Oh, what did they talk about?’ We talked about very positive things.”
Trump would prefer, of course, to continue interacting with Putin unsupervised. He also would prefer the broader public to adopt his view of investigations of his conduct as “witch hunts.” All of that would also involve the country accepting an imperial understanding of presidential powers. That’s why one of the great tests of the Trump presidency involves seeing how ready the Republican Party and voters are to accommodate themselves to executive overreach or malfeasance.
Trump and his advocates have argued that Comey’s firing can’t be construed as obstruction of justice because, under Article II of the Constitution, the president was merely exercising the powers of his office as he saw fit. Comey worked for him, after all. A similar argument has surfaced around the voluminous body of critical or meddlesome tweets Trump has directed at federal investigators and defendants in various legal probes that might circle back to him. Trump can tweet whatever he wants because it’s free speech, say his defenders.
But the law allows no one, including the president, to try to upend the justice system or disrupt governmental proceedings in the service of their own interests. In that context, it really isn’t about thinking of it as someone just doing their job when a senior law enforcement official gets canned, or just speaking their mind when they seek to influence witnesses by lashing out or praising them on Twitter (especially if national security and the rule of law are at stake).
There isn’t settled agreement about the boundaries of presidential immunity and executive privilege, so we may end up seeing some of this adjudicated and settled by the Supreme Court depending on how events unfold. In the interim, the House of Representatives is likely to fill the void.
U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Saturday that it was “unprecedented” that the FBI felt it needed to investigate a sitting president’s “possible cooptation by a hostile foreign government.” He said that his committee will “take steps to better understand both the President’s actions and the FBI’s response to that behavior, and to make certain that these career investigators are protected from President Trump’s increasingly unhinged attacks."
U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also said on Saturday that he wants to know more about Trump’s meetings with Putin. He said his committee plans to hold hearings on the “mysteries swirling” around the Trump-Putin relationship. “Every time Trump meets with Putin, the country is told nothing,” he said. “The Foreign Affairs Committee will seek to get to the bottom of it.”
Whether any of that looms large in the president’s mind — or whether he completely understands the potential threats of the various probes surrounding him — is unclear. An open season of House probes is set to kick off publicly next month in Washington when the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testifies in a hearing about his experiences working for Trump. Pirro asked the president on Saturday night if he had concerns about Cohen’s testimony.
“You know, you’re supposed to have lawyer-client privilege, but it doesn’t matter ’cause I’m a very honest person, frankly,” Trump responded.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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