President Trump clearly wants you to know that he reserves the right to wreck shop in the Justice Department. He has claimed the authority to do things like fire Robert S. Mueller III, and he has regularly mused about getting “involved” in DOJ and FBI matters if they don't clean up their act.
He has said these things many times before, yes. But during a Thursday night rally in Evansville, Ind., he offered perhaps his most direct threat yet.
After specifying that he was referring to the leaders of the agencies, Trump said this:
Our Justice Department and our FBI have to start doing their job, and doing it right, and doing it now. Because people are angry. People are angry. What’s happening is a disgrace. And at some point -- I wanted to stay out, but at some point, if it doesn’t straighten out properly -- I want 'em to do their jobs -- I will get involved and I will get in there if I have to. Disgraceful.
It sounds a lot like what Trump has said before. But if you look closely and examine the context, it begins to look more like Trump is leaning in on the idea. This is becoming less hypothetical.
Early on, when Trump began talking about getting involved in Justice Department and FBI business, it was mostly about congressional Republicans' allegedly neglected documents requests.
"I have purposefully, because of this ridiculous witch hunt — I have said I'm going to stay away from the Justice Department until it's completed. So I wanted to stay away,” Trump told reporters June 15. “Now, that doesn't mean I have to, because I don't have to. I can get involved. But I don't want you people to say that I'm interfering, that I'm doing anything."
Trump addressed the documents issue again in a July 1 interview on Fox Business.
"The one thing I want to stay uninvolved in — at least for now. I may get involved. But I've been told by so many people, 'don't get involved,' ” Trump said, adding: “Honestly, it's a disgrace. But I purposely said I'm not getting involved, let it just go. You know, they found nothing. Nobody has found anything."
Talking to Fox News in an interview that aired July 17, Trump brought it up in the context of law enforcement allegedly not examining the Democratic National Committee's email server as it should have.
"As they said, you are winning, don't get involved because I don't want to have people accuse me of anything. So, I've stayed very much uninvolved,” Trump said. “But am I allowed to be involved? Totally. Will I be involved? We'll have to see as it goes along. I mean, right now, people are finding out a lot of things that they never thought."
On Aug. 11, it was a tweet about forcing the FBI to turn over former deputy director Andrew McCabe's text messages:
By Saturday of last week, it was about the FBI allegedly ignoring Hillary Clinton's emails in its investigation:
How Thursday's threat differs, in my estimation, is that it's more forceful — Trump said “I will get involved” rather than “I may get involved” (perhaps playing off the crowd) — but also that it's more generalized. All of these previous comments had to do with specific issues that may not directly pertain to him. On Thursday night, he wasn't invoking a particular controversy. It was a blanket threat.
It also came in the context of what happened the preceding 24 hours. Earlier in the week, The Washington Post reported Trump had rekindled the idea of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The morning before the rally, Trump appeared to grant the premise that he considered firing both Sessions and Mueller. Some Republican senators have warmed to the idea that Trump might get rid of Sessions after the midterm elections — despite previously saying there would be, in the words of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), “holy hell” to pay for doing such a thing.
The groundwork has been laid for Trump trying to install someone new at the Justice Department. The huge question surrounding that is how it affects Mueller and whether the new AG will do Trump's bidding on these matters, as he clearly craves.
Against the backdrop, Trump decided to up the ante — slightly but unmistakably — as he often does.