WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday unleashed an extended assault on the F.B.I. and the special counsel’s investigation, knitting together a comprehensive alternative story in which he had been framed by disgraced “losers” at the bureau’s highest levels.
In a two-hour span starting at 7 a.m., the president made a series of false claims on Twitter about his adversaries and the events surrounding the inquiry. He was responding to a report in The New York Times that, after he fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director in 2017, the bureau began investigating whether the president had acted on behalf of Russia.
In his tweets,
- the president accused Hillary Clinton, without evidence, of breaking the law by lying to the F.B.I. He claimed that
- Mr. Comey was corrupt and best friends with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
- He said Mr. Mueller was employing a team of Democrats — another misleading assertion — bent on taking him down.
Individually, the president’s claims were familiar. But as the special counsel’s inquiry edges ever closer to him, Democrats vow a blizzard of investigations of their own and the government shutdown reaches record lengths, Mr. Trump compiled all the threads of the conspiracy theory he has pushed for many months in an effort to discredit the investigation.
Mr. Trump accused the F.B.I. of opening “for no reason” and “with no proof” an investigation in 2017 into whether he had been working against American interests on behalf of Russia, painting his own actions toward Russia as actually “FAR tougher” than those of his predecessors.
The Times article, published Friday evening, reported that law enforcement officials became so alarmed by Mr. Trump’s behavior surrounding his firing of Mr. Comey that they took the explosive step of opening a counterintelligence investigation against him.
Naming several of the bureau’s now-departed top officials, including Mr. Comey and his deputy, Andrew G. McCabe, Mr. Trump said the F.B.I. had “tried to do a number on your President,” accusing the “losers” of essentially fabricating a case. “Part of the Witch Hunt,” he wrote — referring dismissively to the investigation now being overseen by Mr. Mueller.
At the time he was fired in May 2017, Mr. Comey had been leading the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and the officials believed that his removal, in hindering the inquiry, posed a possible threat to national security. Their decision to open the case was informed, in part, by two instances in which Mr. Trump tied the firing to the Russia investigation.
The inquiry they opened had two aspects, including both the newly disclosed counterintelligence element and a criminal element that has long been publicly known: whether the firing constituted obstruction of justice.
When Mr. Mueller was appointed days later, he took over the joint inquiry as part of his larger investigation of Russia’s action in 2016 and whether anyone on the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow. It is not clear whether he is still pursuing the counterintelligence matter, and no public evidence has emerged that Mr. Trump himself secretly conspired with the Russian government or took directions from it.
Mr. Trump indicated on Saturday that he had not known of the existence of the counterintelligence investigation before the Times article, and he did not dispute the newspaper’s reporting.
But he made clear that he viewed any such inquiry as illegitimate from the start. He presented it, without evidence, as part of a vast, yearslong conspiracy to undo his presidency.
In the tweets, Mr. Trump defended his decision to fire Mr. Comey — “a total sleaze!” — at length, accusing the former director of overseeing a “rigged & botched” investigation of Mrs. Clinton, and leading the agency into “complete turmoil.” Democrats and Republicans alike wanted Mr. Comey removed, he said.
“My firing of James Comey was a great day for America,” Mr. Trump wrote. “He was a Crooked Cop.”
If he did, and used soldiers to build it, they would all be committing a federal crime.
President Trump on Friday said that he was considering the declaration of a “national emergency” along the border with Mexico, which he apparently believes would allow him to divert funds from the military budget to pay for a wall, and to use military personnel to build it.
While it is hard to know exactly what the president has in mind, or whether he has any conception about what it would entail, one thing is clear: Not only would such an action be illegal, but if members of the armed forces obeyed his command, they would be committing a federal crime.
Begin with the basics. From the founding onward, the American constitutional tradition has profoundly opposed the president’s use of the military to enforce domestic law. A key provision, rooted in an 1878 statute and added to the law in 1956, declares that whoever “willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force” to execute a law domestically “shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years” — except when “expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress.”
Another provision, grounded in a statute from 1807 and added to the law in 1981, requires the secretary of defense to “ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel)” must “not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.”
In response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, Congress created an express exception to the rules, and authorized the military to play a backup role in “major public emergencies.” But in 2008 Congress and President Bush repealed this sweeping exception. Is President Trump aware of this express repudiation of the power which he is threatening to invoke?
The statute books do contain a series of carefully crafted exceptions to the general rule. Most relevantly, Congress has granted the Coast Guard broad powers to enforce the law within the domestic waters of the United States. But there is no similar provision granting the other military services a comparable power to “search, seize and arrest” along the Mexican border. Given Congress’s decision of 2008, this silence speaks louder than words. Similarly, the current military appropriations bill fails to exempt military professionals from criminal punishment for violating the law in their use of available funds.
It is, I suppose, possible to imagine a situation in which the president might take advantage of the most recent exception, enacted in 2011, which authorized the military detention of suspected terrorists associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. But despite President Trump’s unsupported claims about “terrorists” trying to cross the border, it is an unconscionable stretch to use this proviso to support using the military for operations against the desperate refugees from Central America seeking asylum in our country.
It is even less plausible for the president to suspend these restrictions under the National Emergencies Act of 1976. From the Great Depression through the Cold War, presidents systematically abused emergency powers granted them by Congress in some 470 statutes, culminating in the Watergate fiasco. In response, the first section of the 1976 act terminated all existing emergencies and created a framework of checks and balances on the president’s arbitrary will.
If President Trump declared an emergency, Section Five of the act gives the House of Representatives the right to repudiate it immediately, then pass their resolution to the Senate — which is explicitly required to conduct a floor vote within 15 days. Since President Trump’s “emergency” declaration would be a direct response to his failure to convince Congress that national security requires his wall, it is hard to believe that a majority of the Senate, if forced to vote, would accept his show of contempt for their authority.
The Supreme Court’s 1953 decision in Youngstown v. Sawyer would be critical in Congressional consideration of such a decision. In a canonical opinion by Justice Robert Jackson, the court invalidated President Truman’s attempt in 1952 to use his powers as commander in chief to nationalize steel mills in the face of labor strikes. The decision imposed fundamental constitutional limits on the president’s power to claim that a national emergency — in this case, the Korean War — allowed him to override express provisions preventing him from using those powers domestically.
Was the president trying to shore up his support with a base grown tired of foreign interventions? Did he cave when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him over the phone that he was going to carry his operations against the Kurds into Syrian territory? Was Trump’s decision a momentary whim now incredibly become indelible history? Who can say? Just in time for Christmas, Trump has finally brought us the peace that passeth all understanding.
Even by Trumpian standards, the troop-withdrawal announcement looked haphazard. And it wasn’t the Trump administration’s only holiday surprise. On Saturday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced (on Twitter, naturally) that the president had no intention of firing Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell. Which of course raised the possibility that he might. On Sunday, Mnuchin returned with a stunning encore: He said he had spoken with the heads of the United States’ six largest banks to confirm that they had “ample liquidity available for lending” and haven’t had “any clearance or margin issues . . . the markets continue to function properly.”
.. Mnuchin’s actions are both more and less mysterious than the president’s. Less, because it seems clear why his Twitter feed developed a sudden nervous tic: He was trying to appease his boss. More, because neither Mnuchin nor anyone else understands how to calm the impetuous, irascible occupant of the Oval Office.
Presumably, the president is displeased by the recent decline in financial markets. It’s less clear whether he, or anyone else, actually believed that investors would perk right up if the treasury secretary, for no apparent reason, started shouting, “Guys, everything’s fine! We’re not going to have another financial crisis, okay?”
To be fair, it’s not clear what would cheer them up. Which brings us to the deepest mystery of all: Why were investors so optimistic in the first place?
I asked a number of financial professionals that question back when the bull market was still charging ahead. After all, Trump had promised tariffs, which large, publicly traded corporations tend not to like; he had promised immigration restrictions, which such companies really don’t like; and finally, he had promised lots of uncertainty, which those firms hate with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns.
The boom could be viewed as a collective sigh of relief that Democrats wouldn’t be finding new and creative ways to regulate the private sector. But given the protectionist drawbacks of a Trump administration, this didn’t really justify a 35 percent increase in the value of the S&P 500 from November 2016 to September 2018.
The best answer I got was that investors and chief executives assumed that Trump was planning to do the stuff they wanted — the tax cuts, the deregulation — and that the rest of his campaign promises were just base-pandering rhetoric that would be quickly abandoned. Their belief seemed touchingly naive, even quaint. But also sincere and strongly held.
.. Which may solve the twin mysteries of boom and the bust: Wall Street believed that Trump was just playing erratic and impulsive for the cameras, but that behind the policy scenes, what they’d be getting was a normal Republican presidency, only maybe a bit more so. The current correction may simply reflect Wall Street’s belated realization that investors would be getting exactly what they’d seen on the stump: a man who substitutes reaction for planning, and angry tweets for policy.
One thing, of course, is totally unsurprising: that when those on Wall Street finally figured out who they were really dealing with, and prices slumped, the guy from the campaign stump was going to find a way to make it all worse.
Mr. Mattis’s resignation letter on Thursday served as a rebuke of the president’s sharp demands of America’s allies and softened approach toward some of its adversaries. Only over the weekend did Mr. Trump realize that Mr. Mattis’s letter was a critique of the president’s policies, leading him to accelerate Mr. Mattis’s departure.
.. “I very deeply regret the decision made on Syria,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said during a news conference over the weekend. “To be allies is to fight shoulder to shoulder. It’s the most important thing for a head of state and head of the military. An ally should be dependable.”
.. Focusing on money saved, Mr. Trump sent more than 10 Twitter posts in four hours.
In one, he declared that Saudi Arabia would “spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States.” It was not immediately clear how or when that would happen.As he assailed critics of his “America First” approach, Mr. Trump also targeted Mr. McGurk, the envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State.
The president misleadingly called Mr. McGurk an Obama-era appointee, and accused him of “loading up airplanes with 1.8 Billion Dollars in CASH & sending it to Iran” as part of the nuclear deal that world powers struck with Tehran — an agreement from which Mr. Trump has withdrawn the United States.
.. The Obama administration did not directly give money to Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal; instead the United States unfroze billions in assets as part of a decades-long debt dispute, $1.7 billion of which was transferred in cash in 2016.
.. Mr. McGurk, who worked in the administration of President George W. Bush as well as President Barack Obama, led the delicate, 14-month negotiations with Iran that prompted the release of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist. This summer, Mr. McGurk was the target of assassination threats from Iranian-backed militias and demonstrators in Iraq.
.. Over the weekend, Mr. Trump suggested on Twitter that Mr. McGurkwas a “grandstander.” The envoy resigned in protest over the Syria decision, which he said had blindsided United States officials and allies in the Middle East, including American-backed Kurdish soldiers who are fighting the Islamic State.
The president also said he was making progress on negotiations with North Korea, despite the State Department having been stymied so farin efforts to persuade the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to begin the process of dismantling its nuclear arsenal. “Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
.. After his initial burst, Mr. Trump tweeted that he had just given out “a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” White House and Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to a request for comment on what the president meant, and Mr. Trump did not elaborate when he briefly appeared in front of reporters on Monday night.