OBSERVING the behaviour of the current US President can evoke a wide range of emotions. Donald Trump can inspire disdain, disbelief, mockery, infuriation and even weariness. To be fair, he can also inspire intense positive passion and genuine admiration. It depends on who is listening and watching.
But Trump can also inspire fully justifiable fear, and he did so again last week.
Last Tuesday, during his first State of the Union speech, Trump preached bipartisanship while often facing only in the direction of Republican senators and congressmen who obediently and cravenly applauded his remarks. Those Democrats in attendance were much more reserved, even morose, in their reaction.
State of the Union addresses are rarely significant either as oratory or as blueprints for future policy. But one snippet from Trump's 80 minutes before the microphones and TV cameras had an ominous, almost haunting quality. If it turns out to have more than passing significance, it could presage developments that should cause fear in everyone who retains faith in America.
As he carried on with his prepared remarks, Trump returned to a theme he has occasionally praised in the past. "Americans love their country, and they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return," he said. "We have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government."
But then Trump slipped from his high podium. He dredged up a proposal to grant to cabinet secretaries the authority to remove from office any government employees who "fail the American people". Implicit in this reference is that cabinet secretaries, appointed by the president and beholden to him for their positions once confirmed by the Senate, would be authorised to determine which employees "failed the American people", perhaps by disagreeing with or failing to demonstrate sufficient fealty to the wishes of the incumbent president.
It does not take great imagination to see in which immediate direction such remarks and ideas are focused. Trump is talking about the Department of Justice, an influential and generally well-respected federal department whose area of responsibility includes the FBI, America's national police force.
For nearly his entire term of office, Trump has been suspicious of, feared, criticised and tried to manipulate the main Justice Department in Washington, DC. He has been publicly annoyed at otherwise servile Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the ongoing examination of Russian influence in the 2016 US presidential election. He has also directed fire at the FBI, particularly for its investigative role in that same congressionally mandated inquiry.
If, as Trump claims, the Russians had no influence in that election, why should he be so vexed? He did win, after all! The reason is clear from his public posture. Any proven Russian influence would diminish, and perhaps delegitimise, his election.
He is clearly sensitive on this subject. Consider his effort to explain away the popular vote totals as the result of voter fraud. (Trump received several million fewer overall votes than did Hillary Clinton.) He even set up a commission to look into the matter. The commission was just disbanded this month, with little fanfare.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is apparently edging ever closer to the president himself in his investigation. Even if it is never proven that Trump was involved in the machinations between his campaign and the Russians, the president's related, incautious public utterances may constitute a clear prima facie case of obstruction of justice, according to some scholars. That could be grounds for impeachment if Democrats regain control of Congress in November.
So now the Republican counterattack intensifies. Enter Congressman Devin Nunes, a California Republican labeled "Trump's Stooge" by his hometown newspaper.
As chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes is supposed to be leading its inquiry into Russian election influence. Instead, he has commissioned a report clearly designed to impugn Mueller and the Justice Department. The report will likely soon be made public.
For some, this is eerily reminiscent of President Nixon and his own Justice Department 45 years ago. Nixon ultimately fell because of incriminating tapes he had insisted upon to be part of his historical record. Will Trump also leave in disgrace largely due to his own actions?