By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON – On Day 118 of the Trump administration, a special counsel was appointed. The word impeachment was uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives. And the president of the United States contemplated how to go forward with the next 1,343 days.
The notion that President Donald Trump will actually be impeached seemed like liberal wishful thinking, but a new prosecutor represented a serious threat and Washington was abuzz Wednesday with the surround sound of scandal. Lawmakers demanded documents. The Dow Jones average fell by 372 points. Watergate talking heads flooded cable news shows.
For a president who has never commanded the support of a majority of his public, the accumulated toll of self-inflicted wounds has been a challenge from the start. Now he faces perhaps the most daunting moment of his young administration after his decision to fire the FBI director, his disclosure of sensitive information to the Russians and a report that he tried to shut down an investigation into a former aide.
Like other presidents before him who felt under siege, Trump expressed resentment rather than remorse, insistent that he has done nothing wrong and convinced that he has been persecuted. "No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly," he complained to Coast Guard graduates on Wednesday hours before the appointment of the special counsel. "You can't let them get you down."
But he is down, and so are his aides, many of whom wait for the ax they fear is coming as they hear whispers of shake-ups to come. With his first foreign trip as president starting Friday, Trump is looking for ways to fend off the attacks and investigations while reinvigorating a presidency that has lost control of its narrative.
That became inordinately more difficult at 6 p.m. Wednesday with the announcement by Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, that he was appointing Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director, as special counsel, another term for special prosecutor.
It would be hard to imagine a choice less helpful to the White House, given that Mueller was an ally in the past of James B. Comey, his successor as FBI director, who was fired by Trump last week. The last straw for Rosenstein may have been a New York Times article reporting that Trump tried to convince Comey to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, according to a memo Comey wrote.
Julian Epstein, who was the chief counsel for the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, said Trump essentially brought this on himself with his "clumsy and self-defeating" attempts to rid himself of Comey in the midst of an active FBI investigation into any ties between his campaign associates and Russia.
"With the appointment of Mueller, they have now totally lost control of this train and have very limited ability to manage the widening crisis around it," Epstein said. "This will go down as one of the most inept and counterproductive efforts of damage control that we've ever seen in public life."
The president and the White House tried to get through the day by going through the motions of regular governing, much as Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Clinton did when facing special prosecutors. Trump flew on Air Force One to Connecticut for the Coast Guard Academy commencement and returned to the White House to interview candidates to replace Comey. Vice President Mike Pence hosted a reception for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Ivanka Trump convened a meeting to talk about human trafficking.
But there was nothing regular about the day, and there may not be anything regular about many of the days to come. Even before the latest developments, Trump's legislative agenda was going nowhere. So many journalists swarmed the Capitol on Wednesday trying to buttonhole lawmakers about Trump's interactions with Comey that the Senate press gallery sent out a warning about "Senate hallway congestion."
"For President Trump, the drip, drip, drip of scandal has sidetracked, for example, health care and tax reform," said Jim Robenalt, author of "January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever."
"If this continues, the paralysis, as with Nixon, will cause a loss of confidence overseas, our enemies will be emboldened, and at home the Republican agenda will stall."
While Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, became the first lawmaker to call for impeachment and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan became the first Republican to say the allegations in Comey's memo if true could be grounds for impeachment, the prospect of such a process remained distant. Both Nixon and Clinton faced a House that was in the hands of the opposition party when impeachment proceedings began. Trump is relying on his fellow Republicans as a firewall.
But that did not stop talk, especially on the left. The pace of political life has only accelerated and intensified since Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in 1974 and Clinton was impeached in 1998 and acquitted in a Senate trial the next year. Google Trends reported more than 20,000 searches on the phrase "Trump impeachment" on Tuesday as news of Comey's memo emerged.
Republicans, while not ready to abandon Trump, showed signs of nervousness. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., deleted a message she had posted on Twitter last week praising Trump's letter dismissing Comey.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin of Russia seemed to be enjoying the disruption he had helped sow in the United States, trolling American politicians by offering to provide his own transcript of last week's meeting between Trump and the Russian foreign minister where the president shared sensitive information.
At the White House, nerves were on edge as well. When a White House spokesman makes a point of attributing everything to the president rather than making assertions in his own voice, it suggests a trepidation about vouching for accounts that may eventually be contradicted by the president himself.
So when Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, briefed reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday, he carefully quoted Trump, answering many questions with phrases like: "The president is confident ..." "The president has been very clear ..." and "The president does not believe ...."
After Mueller's appointment was announced, the White House issued a statement in the president's name, not that of any of his representatives. And whether he knew it or not, Trump echoed Clinton's approach, that he was focused on his day job. "I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country," Trump said.
If this White House is anything like those in the past, it will remain caught up in the crisis for weeks and months to come. John A. Farrell, who just published a new biography, "Richard Nixon: The Life," said this was what the White House could look forward to: "Anger.
Distraction. Fear. Friends are now viewed with suspicion, as potential accusers. Rumors fly that so-and-so has lawyered up, or is talking to the prosecutors."
In the end, he said, "all are caught up in the vortex."