It hit like a bombshell — news first reported in The New York Times last week that the FBI had opened a counter-intelligence investigation of the president.
The implications were horrifying. Going well beyond what most observers have presumed is the scope of the Mueller investigation — namely, whether there was collusion between Trump campaign officials and agents of Russian intelligence in the 2016 election — the Times story implied that the president himself could be an asset of the Russian government while serving as commander-in-chief of the United States. This was the full Manchurian Candidate scenario, and several orders of magnitude worse than the standard "collusion" story.
Yet almost immediately, critics began to raise legitimate concerns — not just about the allegations themselves, but about the FBI opening the investigation in the first place. These objections didn't just come from the Trump-can-do-no-wrong brigade on the right. They arose from knowledgeable, fair-minded analysts who usually default to a position of deference toward federal law enforcement, as well as from left-wing critics of the national security state.
The Times indicated that the FBI launched its probe of the president because he had fired FBI Director James Comey and because he repeatedly said and did things that raised suspicions within the Bureau that Trump was compromised in some way by Russia. The first cause is troubling because firing the director of the FBI falls firmly within the powers of the presidency, while the second raises the prospect that, in the words of legal analyst Jack Goldsmith, "the unelected domestic intelligence bureaucracy holds itself as the ultimate arbiter ... about what actions do and don't serve the national security interests of the United States."
Just how bad of a president is Donald Trump? So bad that he causes some of the most elemental operations of the American government to short-circuit in a way they would be unlikely to do with just about anyone else inhabiting the White House.
Goldsmith and other critics are absolutely correct to imply that the judgment of elected officials, and above all the president, is supposed to override the opinions of the unelected bureaucrats who staff the intelligence community when it comes to determining what is and isn't in the country's interests. Yet it's also true that the risk of these bureaucrats disregarding this obvious distinction would be nil under just about any other president.
Richard Nixon was able to pursue a diplomatic opening with China, Barack Obama managed to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and both Obama and George W. Bush sought to strengthen relations with none other than Vladimir Putin himself — all over the sometime strenuous objections of people who worked in the bowels of the executive branch. These career employees may have disagreed strongly with the policies pursued by these presidents, but they recognized that the policy call wasn't theirs to make — that it belonged to the duly elected president and the advisors he had chosen to aid in his decision-making.
The situation with Trump is different, but not simply because the president has indicated that he hopes to make more radical changes to the direction of U.S. foreign policy than most. Repeatedly flattering autocrats while continually insulting long-standing democratic allies; indicating a desire to withdraw from NATO at a time when Russia is flexing its muscles in Eastern Europe; promising to stand down from our war-footing in one or more theaters of the War on Terror — each of these shifts would have been controversial for any president, while all of them together would be sure to inspire anxiety and even anger among those who have devoted themselves to crafting the potentially discarded policies.
Yet none of these policy shifts, individually or collectively, is sufficient to explain the unprecedented opposition Trump has faced inside the federal bureaucracy. Imagine a president who ran for office clearly advocating for these changes; who won a decisive victory without Russian help and without a long string of advisors maintaining myriad ties to shady figures in Russian private and public life; who worked to build support for the changes in Congress and the public at large; and who instituted them through careful, methodical processes, drawing on the expertise of people in the federal government who have devoted their careers to executing presidential directives. It would be difficult if not impossible to imagine the FBI launching a counter-intelligence investigation of the president under such circumstances and without numerous additional suspicious acts. There would be no smoke, and so no obvious sign of fire.
But with Trump, nothing is obvious at all. He consistently acts exactly as one might imagine a president controlled by Moscow would act — except that one would expect an actual foreign asset to do a far better job of concealing it. He almost seems too guilty for the suspicion to be plausible.
The result? A buckling federal bureaucracy that's understandably triggered by the president's words and deeds into behavior that would normally, and rightly, be considered unambiguously insubordinate and even borderline coup-like.
And there doesn't seem to be any way to fix the problem — because the problem is the person.
Trump is like Kryptonite to the institutions of American democracy. As long as he holds the power of the presidency, those institutions will be condemned to enduring a stress test unlike any other in American history.
Either the president of the United States is a foreign agent — or federal law enforcement is guilty of gross interference in the political life of the nation. That's where we are. And where we are condemned, for the remainder of Donald Trump's presidency, to remain.