Analysis: The president’s decision follows a pattern of seeking to undermine institutions, and his views are no longer on the fringe
David Smith in Washington
The release of the “Nunes memo” confirms Donald Trump’s willingness to burn down America’s institutions to save his own skin. But unlike in the era of Richard Nixon, the Republican resistance to such tactics is all but dead.
On Friday, the US president approved the release of a classified memo commissioned by the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, Devin Nunes, that alleges bias against Trump within the FBI and justice department.
It is surely no coincidence that the extraordinary move – denounced as reckless by the justice department – coincides with the special counsel Robert Mueller reaching at least the end of the beginning of his investigation into alleged collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.
What is the Nunes memo?
Mueller is reportedly seeking an interview with the president, who has branded the exercise a “hoax” and “witch-hunt” and is deploying his usual playbook: deflect, distract and hit back harder. That this drags America ever closer to its worst constitutional crisis since Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre” appears a secondary consideration.
On 20 October 1973, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the special prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate the break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.
Both the attorney general and deputy attorney general quit rather than enforce the order, but eventually Nixon found someone to do the deed. It ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment, thanks in part to Republicans willing to take a stand against a Republican president.
In 2018, it seems, history rhymes: Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, last year, then, according to media reports, ordered the firing of Mueller, only to be blocked by his White House legal counsel, who threatened to resign. “Right now, we are living through our very own, slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre, and it is up to us to stop it,” wrote the progressive organisation MoveOn.Org in a fundraising email this week.
Like Nixon, Trump is seeking to discredit and delegitimise those investigating him, painting the FBI, like the press, as enemies of the people. He does not necessarily need to oust Mueller or be totally cleared of wrongdoing. He must hope that throwing enough sand in the gears to claim reasonable doubt will be enough to rally Republicans and popular opinion.
This fits a destructive pattern designed to undermine institutions. Last August, on the day it was revealed that Mueller had convened a grand jury, Trump told his supporters at a rally in Huntington, West Virginia: “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly demeaning to our country and demeaning to our constitution.”
And it is all amplified by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, where talk of “a coup” against Trump fills the airwaves. According to the Daily Beast, the president’s decision to declassify the memo came about after he consulted the Fox News host Sean Hannity. In recent days, Hannity’s colleague Tucker Carlson called the allegations contained in the memo “more troubling than the underlying crime in Watergate”. Another presenter, Jeanine Pirro, has called for investigators to be “taken out in cuffs”.