Wednesday was not our first visit to Trump’s Land of Oz, otherwise known as President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. That’s where he feverishly expresses whatever is on his mind or grinding his gears. Some of what he says on social media tells Americans where he stands on issues. But a lot of what he tosses out is absurd, emotional, half-baked and ultimately meaningless.
That’s some background for the reckless series of Trump tweets in which he lashed out at the Mueller investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election and declared that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.”
With those words the president crossed a line — publicly calling on his attorney general to shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s independent investigation. Consider: One part of Mueller’s probe is asking whether Trump committed obstruction of justice last year by firing FBI Director James Comey, who previously led the investigation. Wednesday’s tweet had Trump directing Sessions to fire Mueller and therefore … obstruct justice?
Here’s where previous visits to Oz are helpful. We recognize the surreal terrain: What Trump typed was angry, irresponsible — and not to be taken literally. Soon after the tweets landed, two of the president’s lawyers clarified that he was not ordering Sessions or the Justice Department to fire Mueller — he was sharing some thoughts. “I think it’s very well-established the president uses tweets to express his opinion,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said. “He very carefully used the word ‘should.’”
Giuliani would have Americans pay no attention to the man tweeting behind the curtain.
Yet even for those who give Trump latitude to rant, what he did Wednesday went far beyond the pale. When Trump attacks his own government, he corrodes democratic norms, just as his ad hominem attacks on individuals tell Americans that it’s OK to bully and belittle. In these instances, Trump earns our scorn.
Trump cannot fire Mueller. Since Sessions has recused himself in this case, the person who would take that action is Mueller’s overseer, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Rosenstein could remove Mueller only for misconduct, conflict of interest or other “good” cause. Trump obviously thinks Mueller deserves to be fired, but we’ve seen no reason the he should be. We trust Mueller to finish the job he started.
Let’s be clear: Any attempt by Trump to remove Mueller would set off a constitutional crisis and potentially end Trump’s presidency.
Trump likely understands that. He’s wanted Mueller fired in the past yet not taken action. He jumped on Twitter Wednesday out of frustration with the cloud of accusations that hang over his presidency. He sought to distract attention from negative news events, such as the ongoing trial of former Trump campaign official Paul Manafort. He wanted to fire up his supporters. He tried to pressure Mueller to finish, and get a head start on trashing the integrity of any damaging conclusions.
None of that justifies what Trump did Wednesday. Message to Oz: The Mueller investigation is no witch hunt.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.