In June of 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson set up the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. A task force made up of academics studied killings, attempted killings, and assaults on eighty-one state legislators, congressmen, senators, governors, and Presidents, dating back to 1835. Their findings presented a discordant medley: cases involving mentally disturbed people, extremists, and terrorists; political grievances that escalated; and one incident, in 1890, in which a journalist shot and killed a congressman who had been harassing him. Over all, attacks on politicians seemed to spike in times of social instability, such as during Reconstruction.
Last week, James Hodgkinson, who was sixty-six, and had recently expressed anger toward President Trump and the Republican Party, etched himself into this dark ledger. Hodgkinson’s decision to open fire on an early-morning baseball practice organized by House Republicans in Alexandria, Virginia, was horrifying even by the macabre standards of mass shootings. (According to the Times, on average, at least one shooting in which four or more people die or are wounded occurs in the United States every day.) The attack, which critically wounded the House Majority Whip, Steve Scalise, and injured four others, was the worst assault on congressional office-holders since 1954, when Puerto Rican nationalists fired shots from a visitors’ gallery in the Capitol, wounding five House members.
Following last week’s attack, Republican and Democratic leaders immediately called for solidarity. “We must stand together,” Gabby Giffords, the former representative from Arizona, who was shot and severely wounded during an appearance in Tucson, in 2011, said. Speaking from the White House, Donald Trump noted, “We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.”
The President was praised for his dignified, conciliatory message. Then, the next morning, he returned to trolling. Repeating a charge that he has made before, he tweeted that the F.B.I. and congressional investigations of his campaign and his Administration constitute “the single greatest witch hunt in American political history.” At this point, it feels unnecessary to analyze Trump’s incongruities. He believes that lashing out at opponents strengthens him, and he does not respect the integrity of prosecutors, judges, intelligence officers, or even his own Cabinet appointees. No other President in the television era has humiliated his Cabinet the way Trump did last Tuesday, when he invited cameras to record members praising and thanking him.
The President further alleged, on Twitter, that the investigations were “led by some very bad and conflicted people.” He was apparently echoing allies who seek to impugn Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department to take on the investigations; they complain that some people on Mueller’s team are Democrats. Those investigations originated with evidence of possible collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s Presidential campaign, but last week the Washington Post reported that Mueller will broaden them, to consider whether the President obstructed justice by seeking to interfere with the F.B.I. inquiries, and that Mueller will also look into Jared Kushner’s business activities. On Friday, Trump tweeted criticism apparently directed at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a career prosecutor, who appointed Mueller. If Trump wanted to fire Mueller, he would likely have to go through Rosenstein, or remove him.
In the annals of Washington investigations, the President’s jeopardy is unusual, because he so often makes his own problems worse. Normally, when the capital’s investigative machinery cranks up, Presidents quiet down and let their aides and lawyers speak for them. Trump, however, made his fortune largely by talking about himself, and it appears to be the only methodology he knows. Judging by the former F.B.I. director James Comey’s vivid sworn testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the President’s inappropriate conversations with him, it would seem almost certain that Trump has had similarly ill-considered discussions with others. He told Lester Holt, of NBC News, that he fired Comey because he was upset about the F.B.I.’s investigation into his campaign. Obstruction charges partly turn on the offender’s intentions; Trump admitted his.
All of this is unfolding at a time when the country’s politics appear to be as volatile as they were in the Watergate era. Last week, an Associated Press poll reported that nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance, and a similar number don’t think he has much respect for the country’s democratic institutions. The Republican-controlled Senate is preparing, in secret, a health-care-reform bill that is likely to deprive millions of Americans of insurance coverage. The Democratic Party is divided, and without an obvious standard-bearer, yet Democratic voters are galvanized; in Virginia’s gubernatorial primaries, last week, turnout among Democrats was almost double what it was during the last contested primary, and it dwarfed Republican participation. It has been some time since the two major parties both lacked a clear, popular leader and faced such a roiled electorate.
Perhaps all these disruptions will be addressed through elections and by constitutional and legal means. The Constitution does appear to be alive and well: prosecutors and the F.B.I. have vigorously defended their independence; judges appointed by Presidents of both major parties have blocked the Administration’s discriminatory travel ban; and a robust and well-sourced Washington press corps is keeping the public apprised of the Administration’s activities.
Yet this remains a disquieting political season of hatred and anger. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic crimes rose by more than a third in 2016, and even more steeply in the first part of this year. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports a more than fifty-per-cent increase in anti-Muslim attacks last year. A researcher at California State University who has been tracking hate crimes in nine metropolitan areas found a rise of more than twenty per cent last year. Earlier this month, near an elementary school in the largely African-American Hillcrest neighborhood of Washington, police found a noose hanging from a beam at a construction site. As of yet, no arrests have been made. ♦