This post has been updated.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump declared that no politician in history had been treated more unfairly than he had.
By Wednesday evening, the Justice Department effectively pointed its finger directly at Trump himself. It tacitly admitted he had badly damaged the credibility of the FBIs Russia investigation by announcing the probe would now be handled by a special prosecutor, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III.
The bombshell revelation represents a startling admission of fault for the administration if not the White House directly. This was a Justice Department decision about which the White House reportedly learned shortly before it was announced.
What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
The words “chain of command” loom larger there. At the top of that chain, of course, is Trump, who has earned criticism even from Republicans for his heavy hand in dealing with now-former FBI Director James B. Comey.
And its not at all clear what the president will think or say. He and his team have spent the better part of the past nine days continuing to dig themselves a hole that they first broke ground on with the firing of Comey on May 9. And at every turn, the White Houses strategy has been to deny, deny, deny. Just two days ago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said there was no reason for a special prosecutor.
Update: In a statement, Trump conspicuously didn’t weigh in on the need for a special prosecutor:
But the sum total of it was that the president had done irreparable harm to the credibility of most of those directly overseeing the investigation and the FBI. In many ways, the Justice Department was being given no choice.
Rosenstein has been a perhaps-unwitting participant in the drama. The White Houses attempt to initially pass off Comeys firing as a Justice Department decision and then Trump later saying he made his decision regardless of DOJs recommendations effectively made it look like he had used Rosenstein and his memo detailing the case against Comey as political cover. Rosenstein, who has assembled a strong, bipartisan track record over his decades on law enforcement, suddenly became embattled and, according to various reports, fought back against the White House trying to pin all of it on his recommendation.
Rosensteins boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had long ago compromised himself in this matter to the point where he had to recuse himself from the investigation. Sessions had failed to report two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearings, despite saying, I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. (Sessions wasnt the first Trump surrogate to deny contact with the Russians, only to later have his contact with Kislyak discovered.) And then there were also major questions about whether, given that recusal, Sessions should even have been involved in Comeys firing, which he supported in a letter.
And lastly, Trump also compromised his yet-to-be-named pick for FBI director. He did this first by firing Comey, who had been leading the investigation and announced in March that it was looking into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. He then made it worse by admitting he was considering the Russia investigation when he did it. Then came reports that he had sought a loyalty pledge from Comey and also that he had asked Comey to shut down the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
In the end, Trumps apparently very heavy-handed approach to his FBI directors investigations would have hung over any new FBI director no matter how bipartisan the pick.
With Sessions, Rosenstein and Trumps hand-chosen FBI director all irrevocably involved in this process now and with questions looming about all three, the White House was always going to be vulnerable to doubts about the probes credibility. And now the Justice Department has admitted that.
The question is: Will Trump?