President Donald Trump fired the director of the FBI, reportedly revealed classified information to Russian officials and saw the Justice Department appoint a special counsel to investigate his 2016 campaign in a span of less than two weeks.
Trump has faced a barrage of damaging news stories — including a report Friday from The New York Times that he told Russian officials that firing FBI Director James Comey had relieved the pressure from the investigation into contacts between Russia and Trump’s campaign. Also Friday, The Washington Post reported that a current White House official is a person of interest in the investigation.
“I hope that the last 10 days were a limited edition, because I’m not sure how many more periods like this we can take as a nation,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat who has been an outspoken critic of Trump.
Political analysts have drawn comparisons to the Watergate scandal, which brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency, and even Republican lawmakers referred to the investigation into links between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia as a criminal investigation.
Trump has helped inflame the controversies by contradicting official White House statements in interviews and on Twitter. The cumulative effect could do long-term damage to Trump’s presidency.
Cleaver, who was first elected in 2004, said he has not experienced anything like the last two weeks during his time in Congress.
“Frankly, the old-timers say that even at the beginning of Watergate, it was not like this,” Cleaver said. “... In Watergate, it was drip, drip, drip, and in whatever ‘-gate’ this is, it’s been flood, flood, flood.”
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said it’s not unusual for presidents to face self-inflicted controversies, but it “is unprecedented for this to happen so early in a term. I mean, we’re not far past the first 100 days.”
“I mean, who else assumed the presidency and was so soon enveloped in controversy? Maybe Andrew Johnson?” Miller said, referring to the first president to face impeachment after taking office on the heels of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Other presidents have faced bigger crises during their first year in office, but not of their own making, said Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University and former Republican strategist.
“What George W. Bush had to go through after 9/11 makes this look like small potatoes, but in terms of optics and politics, I cannot think of a worse couple of weeks, and the fact that this is all self-inflicted makes this all pretty unique,” he said.
Republican Party officials in Kansas and Missouri either disputed the notion that the last two weeks had been damaging for Trump or asserted that the maelstrom of negative news was the result of a coordinated effort to undermine his presidency.
“It is the boy who cried wolf,” said Todd Graves, a Kansas City attorney who serves as chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “Every single thing he does is a doomsday moment to many in the national press.”
Graves, whose brother U.S. Rep. Sam Graves represents Kansas City’s northern suburbs, said that the past two weeks won’t have any impact with Trump’s base.
“I think most Republicans believe that the national media’s been hyperventilating about Donald Trump since the moment he was elected,” he said. “With that experience, I think they’ve begun to tune out much of the screeching that they’re hearing.”
Mark Kahrs, the Republican National Committeeman for Kansas, said, “There’s a concerted effort to destroy the presidency of Donald Trump and run him out of office.
“It’s the media. It’s holdovers from the Obama administration,” he said. “And certain Republicans. … People who have power in Washington and don’t want to lose it. Those are the people against President Trump.”
The revelations of the past two weeks include reports that Trump’s transition team was aware that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was under federal investigation and that Trump asked Comey to end the investigation.
Kahrs said he still thinks Trump will have a successful presidency but that “the forces stacked up against him are much greater than anyone ever anticipated.”
Miller said that polling data show Trump remains “wildly popular” with Republican voters, including those who self-identify as moderate. “It’s difficult for Congress to go forward with any action against Trump if average Republicans love the guy,” he said.
Rackaway said that any congressional action against Trump would be more likely in 2019 if Democrats gain seats in the midterm election.
Despite that, Cleaver said, Trump’s clout with Republicans in Congress has been severely diminished.
“I’m not saying he’s going to be indicted or impeached. … I’m saying that whatever else happens, that he has been injured so badly that a lot of the powers that are inherent in that office have been permanently removed,” he said.
Cleaver said he does not expect Trump to play a leading role in crafting legislation moving forward and hypothesized that Republicans in Congress will begin to treat Trump more as a ceremonial bill-signer than their party’s leader.
He said that at a Friday briefing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told House members that the investigation into Russia’s role in the election was not a partisan issue but rather about interference in the democratic process, “and almost everybody in the room organically began to applaud.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whom Trump appointed as vice chairman to a special commission to investigate voter fraud last week, praised the selection of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel but pushed back on the notion that Russia played a pivotal role in the 2016 election.
“In a perfect world, no foreign nation would attempt to influence the headlines preceding an American election,” Kobach said, referring to the prevailing theory that Russia was behind a hack of the Democratic National Committee that damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“But in my opinion, those headlines didn’t influence anything,” said Kobach, who served on Trump’s transition team. “It was all inside baseball.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said the constant stream of Trump news has made it difficult to get anything accomplished on Capitol Hill.
“The attention span around here is famously short anyway … and these news cycles have been so blockbuster that it kind of takes out all the oxygen in the room,” McCaskill said Thursday.
She made that comment before attending a senatorial briefing in which Rosentein revealed that the president planned to fire Comey before Rosentein penned a memo recommending Comey’s termination, which was initially pointed to by the White House as the justification for Comey’s firing.
Trump had already appeared to contradict the official White House account during an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.
Miller said there has been a “really remarkable pattern where the White House will say something … and so you think you have a sense of what the administration position is, and then he’s out on Twitter the next day or in an interview directly contradicting that.
“It blatantly shows they were lying,” Miller said. “It undermines his own credibility. It undermines the credibility of the people he’s appointed. And it shows a lot of confusion. Maybe he’s just too impulsive.”