Donald Trump is in trouble, and by all appearances he does not seem to realize how deep that trouble is. Firing FBI Director Jim Comey, for whatever reason, and however legitimate, was a serious mistake. In so doing, Trump has enabled congressional Democrats and others to accuse him of a cover-up. It does not matter whether Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the investigation of his campaign team’s ties to the Russians, or whether it simply looks that way. Appearances are reality in Washington, and it certainly appears that Trump is following in the footsteps not of Andrew Jackson but rather of Richard Nixon.
Just as Nixon was not directly complicit in the Watergate break-in, but rather was forced out of office because he attempted to cover up for those who carried out the ill-fated theft, so too it matters little whether Trump had direct ties to Moscow. Trump is now perceived, and will continue to be perceived, as covering up for someone, or several persons, unless he changes his position regarding the course of the investigations into exactly what Moscow did, or attempted to do, during the 2016 campaign.
“Cover-up” is a colloquial term for obstruction of justice, which is a felony and an impeachable offense. Trump may not realize that unlike his past battles with the law in New York, he cannot reach a financial settlement and deny culpability. Moreover, as long as the whiff of obstruction surrounds him, Trump will find it far more difficult to push his domestic and foreign agenda through Congress. Congressional Republicans, already rendered uneasy by his erratic tweets and pronouncements, will begin to back away from him as the midterm elections approach. And Democrats will cry “Watergate” at every opportunity.
What must Trump do to keep the wolves from the White House door? To begin with, he must ensure that the FBI investigation proceeds without any hint or rumor of hindrance. There are far too many lawyers in the Justice Department, and agents in the FBI itself, who will view any interference as truly an obstruction of justice and will not hesitate to do what they will consider to be both ethical and their patriotic duty. In other words, should any member of the Trump administration attempt to influence, undermine, or merely stall that investigation, his or her efforts will leak almost immediately, placing the president under an even greater cloud of suspicion.
Second, Trump must agree to the appointment of a special prosecutor. The congressional investigations are moving far too slowly, and are tainted by Chairman Nunes’s seeming cooperation with the White House while he led his committee’s investigation. Again, a case could be made that Nunes did nothing wrong; what forced him to relinquish the lead in the investigation was the appearance of doing something wrong. Congress appears to be dragging its feet in its pursuit of the truth regarding what Russia may or may not have done during the election. Appointment of a special prosecutor will relieve Congress, meaning congressional Republicans, of any further suspicion, particularly if they agree to create a select committee to work with the special prosecutor.
Neither Donald Trump nor his administration can afford to have a Watergate-like crisis to overshadow all other matters for the next three years and seven months. There are too many crises internationally, and too many policies to implement domestically, that urgently require the president and his administration's undivided attention. The appearance of a cover-up must be snuffed out immediately. The nation can afford nothing less.
Dov S. Zakheim is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest. He was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001 to 2004 and deputy under secretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985 to 1987.
Image: President Donald Trump at MacDill Air Force Base. Wikimedia Commons/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff