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President Trump should learn from Watergate and Richard Nixon

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony at the State Department on Wednesday. Credit: Bloomberg / Al Drago

President Donald Trump is again attacking the Justice Department for resisting efforts to politicize special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump is again threatening to follow the destructive path of Richard Nixon as he struggles with the reality that he has two awful options on the table: Either answer Mueller’s questions or assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

To Trump, it seems so much easier to fire the prosecutor.

Trump’s repeated threats risk undermining our democratic institutions by discrediting them in a cynical appeal to his base. This approach is also against his self-interest because when he boasts or tweets negatively about the investigation, he appears to put himself in more legal jeopardy.

Trump must let the process unfold and answer the prosecutor’s questions. Instead, Trump is using his storm troopers in Congress to taint the probe. On Monday, the Justice Department notified House Republicans Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan that it will not turn over a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that set the parameters of the special counsel probe. Justice officials said it was part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

On Tuesday, Meadows let it be known that he might try to impeach Rosenstein, a prime Trump target. By the end of the day, Rosenstein fought back, a signal of how seriously he takes the threats. “And I think they should understand by now, the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.” Think about it, the No. 2 person at the Justice Department claims he is being extorted by members of Congress and the president.

Here’s why. A week ago, Trump said he was “very disappointed in my Justice Department” in a “Fox and Friends” interview, calling the probe “an absolute disgrace.” On Wednesday, Trump continued trying to set up Rosenstein for a fall, concluding a tweet: “At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved.” By the afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders adopted Trump’s strategy, calling the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election a “witch hunt.”

Well, Congress can’t get just any access it wants to documents in an ongoing investigation. That is not how its oversight powers work. And Trump might oversee the Justice Department, but our nation’s rule of law does not bend to the president’s whims. The judicial system will determine whether the Mueller investigation overstepped its authority. Learn from history: President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre” didn’t work out so well, and the Supreme Court later required him to turn over Oval Office recordings to a federal court.

Mueller wants to interview Trump. The president’s lawyers are threatening a showdown with the special counsel if he issues a subpoena to the president. Such a dispute would likely go to the Supreme Court. Trump is pursuing a political strategy: Discredit the investigation and fire those who are doing it.

It’s wrong, and it won’t work. “You’d have to fire the entire FBI and the entire Justice Department” is how fired FBI Director James Comey described the consequences if Trump follows up on his threats.

Those firings would leave Trump’s presidency and his party in ashes.

— The editorial board