There’s a certain rhythm to Donald Trump’s presidency over the past two years. First he does something even more egregious than usual, like defend violent white nationalists or side with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then he hunkers down for the barrage of public criticism. The wave crests, and things return to normal, or at least some new version of it. Those episodes are occasionally described as “Peak Trump”—when the chaos and self-destructiveness of his presidency reaches its apex.
But now that the Russia investigation is over, ending the most immediate threat to his presidency, his behavior thus far may appear restrained in hindsight. In recent weeks, he’s shown himself willing to take even more adventurous steps to secure what he wants. Whether he’s categorically refusing to comply with congressional oversight, urging border agents to ignore judges, or reportedly offering pardons to immigration officials who defy the courts, Trump seems more eager than ever to test the electric fences of American democracy.
His predilections will take root in more favorable soil than ever. Attorney General Bill Barr has made clear over the past few weeks that he will be the loyal functionary whom Trump has long sought to install atop the Justice Department. White House advisor Stephen Miller oversaw a similar purge of the Department of Homeland Security last month, ousting Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other top officials in favor of more hardline figures who could execute the president’s legally dubious vision for border security. And with the threat of special counsel Robert Mueller now receding, even Trump’s personal lawyers are eager for a Thermidorian response.
“The pendency of [Mueller’s] investigation plainly interfered with the president’s ability to carry out his public responsibility to serve the American people and to govern effectively,” Emmet Flood, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, wrote to Barr last month. “These very public and widely felt consequences flowed from, and were fueled by, improper disclosures by senior government officials with access to classified information. That this continues to go largely unremarked should worry all civil libertarians, all supporters of investigative due process, and all believers in limited and effective government under the Constitution.”
To whatever extent Mueller’s work interfered with the president’s day-to-day activities, that interference seems to be entirely Trump’s own doing. Rather than let the investigation run its course, Trump feverishly tried to undermine it at every turn. His dismissal of FBI Director James Comey ignited the political firestorm that led to Mueller’s appointment. Trump then denounced its legitimacy more than a thousand times over the past two years—in speeches and in statements, on television and on Twitter, in public remarks and private rants. Nor is it accurate to say that the leaks have gone “largely unremarked.” The president and his allies frequently rail against them, as do Trump-aligned media outlets like Fox News. Barr even told Congress that “multiple criminal leak investigations” are underway.
Flood’s letter all but demands that the Justice Department subordinate its lawful criminal investigations to the president’s public standing. It’s a jarring stance, but not a surprising one from someone whose job is to defend Trump. Far more troubling is Barr’s view that the president can shut down investigations at will so long as he asserts that they’re based on false accusations. “The president does not have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course,” he told lawmakers on Wednesday. “The president could terminate that proceeding and it would not be corrupt intent because he was being falsely accused.”
History proves that assertion wrong. During the Watergate crisis, Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than carry out Richard Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The Saturday Night Massacre became synonymous with obstruction of justice, and Nixon resigned less than a year later. Barr’s comments suggest that he would not follow his illustrious predecessor’s example in resisting the president’s worst impulses. And while many of Trump’s top officials tried to constrain those impulses over the past two years, all of them are now gone.
The normal checks and balances also look anemic these days. Congressional Democrats also haven’t embraced the idea of impeaching Trump even though the Mueller report reads like a roadmap for it. Instead, they’ve focused on a wave of subpoenas and hearings to shed more light on the Trump administration’s inner workings. In response, Trump has vowed to fight “all the subpoenas” and challenge maneuvers like the release of his tax returns in the courts. His strategy is perhaps predicated on the fact that the Supreme Court’s conservative justices have largely signed off on his actions without second-guessing his bad-faith justifications for them.
If Congress can’t check the president and the courts won’t do so, that leaves only the people around him. But even that may be tricky. The Mueller report documented multiple instances where Trump pressured Jeff Sessions, his attorney general at the time, to un-recuse himself from 2016-related cases—not only to protect Trump himself, but also to launch investigations into Comey and Hillary Clinton. Wielding the Justice Department as a cudgel against one’s political enemies violates all sorts of post-Watergate norms, of course. But Trump doesn’t care about that. When Sessions demurred, Trump publicly wished he had an attorney general who would protect him and harass his opponents.
Barr may soon face that test himself if he hasn’t already. Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s personal lawyers, is working with Ukrainian prosecutors to revisit an investigation connected to Hunter Biden, the son of current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden. Those interactions reportedly came with the blessing of Trump, who has called on the Justice Department to dig deeper. It’s no secret that Trump views Biden as one of his top electoral threats next year. And after feeling the political damage wrought by his war on the Russia investigation, Trump may be eager to dish out some of that damage of his own.
This zero-sum approach to politics can lead to dangerous places. Speaker Nancy Pelosi told The New York Times last week that she fears Trump will challenge the results of the 2020 election unless the Democratic nominee wins by a sizable margin. “We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that,” she said. Even those who know him best are concerned that he’ll refuse to hand over the White House if he loses next year. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, warned Congress in February.
Those fears are well placed. Though it was largely forgotten in the wake of his victory, Trump spent the month leading up to the 2016 election threatening to refuse to accept the result if he were defeated. In a way, he still disputed the results of that election even though he won it. When it became clear in late November 2016 that three million more people voted for Clinton than for Trump, he denied the validity of the count. “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he lied on Twitter.
Trump’s behavior toward the prospect of electoral defeat was already troubling when he was a candidate. It’s far more worrying now that he commands the federal government and routinely describes the Russia investigation as an “attempted coup.” Trump is notoriously unpredictable; he’s as likely to make an empty threat as to indulge his most dangerous impulses. But his presidency is trending in the wrong direction. We can only hope the pundits are right that Peak Trump has come and gone, though we have every reason to fear that the worst is still to come.