“It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense,” President Trump said Monday, sitting in the White House Cabinet room surrounded by generals and admirals. “It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
The president was not describing the well-documented attempt by Russia to interfere with our 2016 elections — he has never used words anywhere near that strong to describe that particular assault on our national sovereignty. He also wasn’t describing Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, an act that violates international treaties as well as the human conscience and American policy.
Instead, Trump was protesting the FBI’s highly unusual raid on the office, home and hotel room of his own, longtime personal attorney.
He used other words as well, such as “disgraceful” and “witch hunt.” He accused federal authorities of “breaking in” to the offices of Michael Cohen. Hugging himself tightly, as if for reassurance, Trump even toyed openly with the possibility of firing special counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an attempt to bring the investigation to an abrupt end, just as he had earlier fired James Comey as FBI director.
But Trump’s protestations to the contrary, this was not an attack on our country by its own law-enforcement community. Nor was it evidence of a liberal conspiracy within that law-enforcement structure, a charge that is ridiculous on its face.
The head of the FBI is a Republican from Georgia whom Trump himself appointed to the office. The deputy attorney general who approved the raid is also a Republican appointed by Trump. The acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who also approved the raid and whose subordinates carried it out, was handpicked for that position by Trump at the suggestion of Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani, and had maxed out in campaign donations to Trump in the 2016 election.
UPDATE: Geoffrey Bermen, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, recused himself from involvement in the investigation of Trump attorney Michael Cohen.
These are not, in other words, the kind of people that you would recruit into a secret conspiracy to bring down a Republican president.
In addition, the legal obstacles that have to be cleared before obtaining a search warrant to breach attorney-client privilege are significant, and are no doubt even more so in a case when the client in question is the sitting president of the United States. The FBI and the Department of Justice are fully aware of Trump’s simmering anger — they too read Twitter — and they would not have moved so audaciously against Michael Cohen without utter confidence that they were correct to do so and were acting fully within the law. Furthermore, no federal judge or magistrate would have approved a warrant breaching the president’s attorney-client privilege without overwhelming evidence of a possible crime.
This is the U.S. criminal justice system working as it was designed to work, well within the confines set for it under the Constitution. It is also consistent with American traditions, which since the days of George Washington have held that the president is not above the law but of the law, that he is a “first citizen” but a citizen nonetheless.
Any breach of the Constitution and of those traditions would come if and when Trump attempts to interfere again with investigations into his campaign and other matters. Based on his statements, his body language and internal White House leaks, he feels under assault, lashing out in frustration that he can’t use the immense powers of the presidency to protect himself.
And he can’t, because that’s the way the Founders designed it.