The waters of the so−called swamp are starting to rise around Donald Trump, with various creatures of Washington’s political marshes threatening his presidency from multiple angles.
Consider about eight developments of the last few days in the town the president derides as an amphibian−infested bog.
First, the special investigator in the Russia affair has empanelled a grand jury, says a report in The Wall Street Journal. Second, lawmakers from both parties are crafting two different bills to protect the investigator, should Trump try firing him.
Third, the attorney general Trump mused about firing has been promised his job is secure. Republican lawmakers have brushed off three demands from the president: on Russia sanctions, on health care, on adjusting procedural rules — that’s four, five and six. Finally, a pair of Republicans have just released books criticizing the president.
To cap it all off, Trump’s critics have been empowered by a new dip in his polling numbers.
This is all happening before the end of the first congressional session of the Trump presidency, which concludes as senators head off on their summer recess this week. On their way out the door, they stiff−armed questions about their president.
One Republican walking down the hallway shrugged when asked whether the president understands the health law he wants them to pass: "I certainly wouldn’t want to comment on what the president understands and doesn’t understand."
Their mood has been hardening against the president.
Republicans have made it clear they’re unhappy that Trump threatened one of their old colleagues — former senator, now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump has just fired two party establishment figures from his White House staff. Now the town is awash in rumours he might fire Sessions out of frustration with his refusal to defend the president in the Russia affair.
Democrats say they hear grumbling from Republican colleagues.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the intelligence committee investigating Russian collusion, says he’s convinced any move to fire special investigator Robert Mueller would trigger a constitutional crisis.
"I’ve seen a real change in tone (from the Republicans)," he said. "I’ll leave it at that."
Mark Warner, another Democrat on the committee, said he’s noticed the same shift: "Republican colleagues have said (firing Mueller) would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.
"I think you would see widespread bipartisan support to put back in place (a new special investigator)."
In fact, two groups of senators, from both parties, have already started crafting bills to restore an investigator if Trump fires Mueller. It now appears unlikely that Trump will fire the attorney general to get a new one who might fire Mueller.
Republicans have rebelled against the idea, saying they will not confirm a replacement for Sessions. Now reports say the new White House chief of staff John Kelly has promised the attorney general his job is secure.
One Trump−skeptical Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, said in an interview with The Canadian Press that nobody in the Republican caucus would accept the special counsel being fired without just cause — and he added, for good measure, that he did not see any just cause.
Mueller is under assault from the president’s supporters. Trump boosters are promoting the idea of firing him, in part because inquiry staff donated to Democrats. But Graham said that, as a lawyer himself, he doesn’t see that as a disqualifier. He pointed out that most of the Kenneth Starr team that investigated Bill Clinton were Republicans.
As for Sessions’s job security, Graham said: "I’ve never felt better about Jeff."
Meanwhile, lawmakers thumbed their nose at Trump and voted overwhelmingly to limit his ability to eliminate sanctions. When Russia protested, Trump called lawmakers a bunch of big−talking, do−nothings who can’t even pass a health law.
In fact, several are now working to protect Obamacare and keep it from collapsing — again, against the president’s wishes. One of the lawmakers who voted to preserve Obamacare, Sen. John McCain, taunted the president over his Russia remarks.
He responded to a presidential tweet with one of his own: "You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies."
And then news broke late Thursday in The Wall Street Journal that Mueller had called in a grand jury in his Russia investigation. The probe appears to have grown from a look at election collusion to broader issues involving financial crimes, based on the expertise of the lawyers he’s hired.
So, what does that mean?
A former assistant Watergate prosecutor and federal prosecutor says it means 23 people have been selected to be on a grand jury, and rather than simply interviewing witnesses in an office, they can summon them to give formal testimony, then consider charges.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, Nick Akerman adds: "Because the prosecutors want to take testimony under oath and may be heading toward indictments."