By Tom Lamia
With the late arrival of spring here in Maine, there are smiles, greetings and courteous conduct among all about me. The world is right again. Snow tires off, door and window screens on, lawn furniture and Weber barbecue laid out in a circle awaiting family and friends. What’s wrong with this picture?
The inescapable black spot that spoils the scene is once again the man in the center of the picture who will not let us alone, who seems not able to let any calm moment or friendly act pass without pushing it aside to celebrate himself and belittle others, shamelessly, irreverently and, of course, wrongly.
Donald Trump sees an essential investigation of an attack on our 2016 presidential election by a historic enemy as the result of treason on the part of our intelligence community. The investigation has ended, but its result is still unclear. The line between national security and political gamesmanship has been blurred to the point of extinction.
I blame myself for pussyfooting around the obvious in this matter of Donald Trump. I have not spoken out in plain, unmistakable language. With the confusion spread by Attorney General Barr’s election to summarize, interpret and, essentially, overrule the Mueller Report, a political stalemate now exists. Special Counsel Mueller interpreted an internal Justice Department rule as preventing him from indicting the President. The Attorney General now advises that the rule does not foreclose indictment and that the Special Counsel’s decision to not indict had nothing to do with the rule. Wrap (or warp) your mind around that.
The President, with the essential help of his Attorney General, has now gained control over this great investigation and declared that it “totally exonerates” him and is over.
Many thought that the special counsel was independent and removed from politics, and that the attorney general was mandated by law and tradition to be, like blindfolded Lady Justice, immune to politics and corruption. Now we learn that the attorney general is just another cabinet position occupied by someone who is committed not to politics-free justice, but to a president seeking shelter from justice. The ultimate power to obstruct justice has become the presidential power to appoint an Attorney General who, with consummate political skill, avoided making his intentions known until after Senate confirmation.
Unless the Congress (divided, so unable to act) or the House (with the power but not the resolve to impeach) can provide a political miracle before the 2020 elections, the damning facts catalogued in the Mueller Report will not provide a remedy for the nightmare of this presidency. Trump and his army of enablers and sycophants are fighting a war of attrition and they are winning. How could our venerable system of constitutional democracy, of checks and balances, permit this to happen?
I have read the Mueller Report. It is a fine piece of work, scrupulously fair and thorough, but ultimately short of its mark. Why? After Watergate, legislation for an independent counsel who would stand apart from the executive and legislative branches was enacted. It worked too well, perhaps. With no political control, an independent counsel, once appointed, was unrestrained, having too much power for one person, especially in the eyes of those who have sought and acquired the power of elected office (or who could see themselves as future targets).
Then the law was changed; a special counsel who acts within the Justice Department, with a specific mandate, was created, making this special counsel subject to the control of the attorney general. The result: When the President is under investigation, ultimate control lies with the President, acting through an obedient, crafty, partisan and learned Attorney General.
Our constitutional system has survived and served us well for 230 years. It was bent and then broken by slavery and civil war, but survived intact, if not triumphant. Had Lincoln lived to administer his plan for Reconstruction, a fully successful reuniting of the nation could have followed, with hard feelings assuaged. His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, the Trump of his day, prevented that and paid with impeachment, though not removal from office. A single vote in the Senate saved him. Consider that not only did Johnson not follow the charted path of his predecessor on Reconstruction, but he was not even of the same political party as Lincoln. When the war started he was a Democratic Senator from Tennessee, a state that seceded from the Union. Senator Johnson was the only senator from a secessionist state who did not give up his seat, for which Lincoln rewarded him with the vice-presidential nomination. Impeachment of Johnson for his southern sympathies and confrontation with Congress close on the heels of civil war was a great trauma for the nation and its Constitution. The system, bruised and battered, survived.
Are we again at such a point? As our President often says when he, like me, has no idea where events will lead: “We’ll see what happens.”