Democrats were at the barricades over the conduct and policies of President Trump long before the blockbuster developments of the past week. One question now is whether they can step back enough to let events play out slowly, deliberately and without prejudice, whatever the ultimate outcome.
With the revelation that fired FBI director James B. Comey has notes of a Feb. 14 meeting in which the president urged him to back off the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, there is an urgent need to find out exactly what happened between the two men who are now adversaries in what has quickly come to resemble a Shakespearean tale.
In today’s overheated political and media environments, there is an almost irresistible desire to reach conclusions long before all the evidence is in. That cottage industry is in overdrive, as anyone absorbing the commentary on cable news or trying to keep up with the ever-scrolling tweets is aware. It’s far easier to spin forward with speculation than to wait patiently for the investigative machinery to catch up.
Trump’s presidency was already in trouble before the New York Times hurled the Comey memo story into the public domain. Now the president and the White House are under siege. But just how much trouble, and what the consequences will be, can’t be known.
Investigations of presidential administrations are always political as well as legal, and it is the political aspect of this that presents Democrats with some hard choices. It’s been clear since the day after the inauguration, when streets around the country and the world were filled with demonstrators registering their disapproval of the new president, that the Democratic Party is being led from the bottom up.
Any sense that congressional leaders or former presidents or former or prospective presidential candidates are directing the opposition is misplaced. The leaders are following the people and have been for months. But these leaders nonetheless must make strategic decisions and render judgments about how to proceed in the face of multiple investigations with multiple strands off the president, his administration, his campaign and his past business record.
Everything looks simple and obvious to many Democrats, who believe Trump is unfit for office and threatens to do great damage to the country. That’s what will continue to rise up from the rank-and-file. But there is another constituency Democratic leaders ought to be thinking about, the millions of people who backed Trump in November.
Trump supporters see all this — the daily attacks by the Democrats on the president and his policies, as well as the startling revelations coming from mainstream news organizations — as part of the left’s attempt to delegitimize a president who won an electoral college majority and perhaps to try to undo the results of that election. The more damaging the new allegations appear to be, the more many in Trump’s base see it as a grand conspiracy by the very elites they rejected last year.
A long-polarized country is now even more divided in the era of Donald Trump. On one side, there is anger toward the president and impatience to render judgment. On the other side, there is admiration for Trump and deep suspicion about the motives of his detractors. What the two sides share is mutual disrespect, even hostility, toward the other side. That makes for a politically toxic environment in which to try to conduct the kind of careful and serious investigations now called for.
Public opinion has not shifted notably. Trump’s base remains relatively solid. There are signs or suggestions of cracks in what has been a solid wall supporting Trump, but nothing dramatic enough to suggest that the president has lost significant ground among those who helped put him in office. The history of the past two years says Trump’s ability to retain support during times of controversy far exceeds that of other politicians. Whether he has entered different territory is the question.
Can Democratic leaders rise above this, even marginally? Can they apply pressure for the most aggressive investigations — through a select committee or special prosecutor — with as little political hype and spin as possible? Can they take on the president without being gratuitous in their criticisms? They now see the possibility of political gains because of what the president is going through, but that cannot be their principal motivation or even perceived to be.
The events of the past week have accelerated everything surrounding the Trump presidency. New information has come at a dizzying pace. Yet very little of it has been moved through the investigative channels. What has been moving through remains opaque.
That the Russians meddled nefariously in the election remains the most concrete conclusion to date. Other matters have yet to be resolved, including possible cooperation between the Russians and Trump campaign associates. Now added to those questions are ones about the conduct and fitness of the president himself and whether he obstructed justice. But the Comey memo still exists publicly on the basis of anonymous sources, not on the testimony of the former director under oath in a public setting.
Trump’s candidacy and presidency have been described as one continuing political reality television show. The investigations fall into another category, more serious and sobering and with enormous consequences for the future of the country.
Democrats may believe they know where this will end and are eager to get there as quickly as possible. But the investigative process is also an educational process in which public confidence in the eventual outcome remains a critically important factor. That’s part of the challenge of the opposition party as the investigations deepen.