Donald Trump won the presidency on the promise he’d drain the swamp. This week, the swamp struck back.
The naming Wednesday of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russian government’s meddling in the U.S. election, including ties to Trump’s campaign, abruptly shifted the balance of power in Washington. The city’s permanent political class forcefully reasserted itself against an antagonistic president determined to bring them to heel.
The Russia investigation will cast a pall over Trump’s first term, with Mueller free to pursue the facts where they lead and little urgency to get there. He may summon scores of people close to the president — and perhaps Trump himself — for questioning. The slow, persistent drip of scandal and investigation will almost certainly diminish Trump’s political clout, slow the momentum he needs to force through his ambitious agenda and — perhaps most significant — blunt his most potent political tool: the ability to threaten those who would cross him.
None of this was lost on official Washington, which had struggled and failed to find its balance in the first tumultuous months of Trump’s presidency. His arrival in the capital was disorienting, as he immediately used the bully pulpit to try to upend the city and to enact his populist agenda.
On Thursday, he called the investigation of his campaign’s ties to the Russian government a “witch hunt” and complained that it detracted from his work to better the country.
Plenty of Problems
“I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so,” he said at a White House news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon. “And again, we have to get back to working our country properly so that we can take care of the problems that we have. We have plenty of problems. We’ve done a fantastic job.”
Yet the collective relief was plainly visible on Capitol Hill when the news broke of Mueller’s appointment. Both Republicans and Democrats praised the choice of one of their own, a familiar Washington figure who had worked his way up in the usual way and led the FBI for a dozen years. They also heaped praise on another career man who’d stood up for the establishment: Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who made the decision to appoint Mueller without consulting the president who had hired him.
Placing the probe in Mueller’s hands freed Republicans from the distasteful burden of investigating a president from their own party. Democrats also were elated, as the appointment guarantees the probe will be serious and will continue to draw attention to a story that is reliably toxic for the president.
“It’s reassuring to have a gentleman step in and give us a sense of confidence the Department of Justice is working the way it was designed to work,” Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said after Rosenstein briefed senators on Thursday.
Trump’s willingness to demolish nearly everything about the way Washington does business — from decades-old trade agreements to bipartisan principles like noninterference by the president in criminal or judicial matters — appeared to be a true threat to key pillars of the status quo.
Companies and their lobbyists worried about the loss of favorable trade deals and the impact of tariffs. Allied governments were no longer sure of U.S. support. Bureaucrats saw a president inherently skeptical of their work and itching to cut deep into their budgets. Prosecutors fretted about their independence. Lawmakers abandoned long-held principles out of fear a Twitter attack from Trump could submarine their careers.
Financial markets ate it up, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 6.3 percent from Trump’s inauguration through Tuesday on his promises of a regulatory rollback and tax cuts.
Standards of Behavior
But the concern in Washington was not merely self-interest. Trump threatened the informal understanding that the government would abide by certain standards of behavior validated over centuries of American history. Across the city, members of both parties in nearly every type of job feared an erosion of the trust and shared political principles that underpin the basic functions of government.
“The president’s entitled to his opinion, but we’re a nation of laws, not men,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican. “That’s not a criticism of the president. That is the reality.”
Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week — just the second time a president has done so in American history — may be remembered as the moment when the establishment was moved to act.
Depth of Animus
The reaction it provoked included particularly damaging leaks: that Trump had pressured Comey to drop the investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and that the president gave classified information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. Those revelations demonstrated both the depth of animus toward his administration in Washington and that the president’s missteps had left him vulnerable.
Markets swooned, with the Dow Jones index losing 373 points on Wednesday, the largest single-day drop since September.
The Washington establishment is pushing back against Trump in “every way, shape and form,” said Representative David Brat, a Virginia Republican who defeated former Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “On foreign policy, domestic issues, his agenda, the budget policy, administration, trying to put people in as secretaries, deputy secretaries, trying to staff up. I mean it’s endless.”
But Trump also hurt himself. He lost important credibility by insisting, without evidence, that his predecessor had wiretapped him and that millions of people voted illegally for his opponent in the election. So did his aides, who insisted his inaugural audience was the largest in history and invoked a fake terrorism attack to justify the president’s ban on travel from Muslim countries.
And Trump’s burn-it-all-down approach has left him with few allies and little momentum.
He’s insulted the intelligence community, equating them to Nazi Germany and invoking the mistakes of the Iraq War. He’s declared war on the media. His firing of Comey and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates alienated them and their loyalists. And his decision to attack judges who put his travel ban on hold has earned him little favor in the judiciary.
The consequences will appear in policy. Trump is set to release his fiscal 2018 budget on Tuesday, a document that will propose slashing billions of dollars for programs across the government, including diplomacy and foreign aid, medical research and environmental protection.
Even before the revelation of Trump’s request to Comey that the FBI director close his probe into Flynn, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that he would chart his own course on a number of key policies, including the budget.
In an interview Tuesday with Bloomberg News, he made clear that he’s prepared to block many of Trump’s proposed cuts and won’t support major tax cuts that add to the deficit. Nor would he commit to building Trump’s border wall.
“We generally — no matter who the president is — generally don’t pay too much attention to the president’s budget,” McConnell said. “But we share some of his priorities.”’
This is not the first time presidents have grappled with the immovable force that is Washington. Barack Obama arrived believing he would be able to bridge the town’s bitter partisanship, only to see things worsen under his watch. George W. Bush touted his credentials working across the aisle in Texas before his tenure as one of the most polarizing presidents of the last century.
Both of them managed to overcome the friction, to some degree, and stick it out through two tumultuous terms. In Trump’s first term, 1,462 days still remain ahead of him.