FRONTLINE Investigates President Trump’s Unprecedented Confrontation With Federal Investigators
For months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — and President Donald Trump’s fury about it — have dominated the headlines.
Now, in the weeks before the midterm elections, as the investigation ensnares powerful members of Trump’s inner circle and threatens the President himself, FRONTLINE will air Trump’s Showdown.The two-hour documentary traces the dramatic events that have led the White House and the nation to the brink of what could become a constitutional crisis.
Premiering Tuesday, October 2 at 9:00 p.m. on KUED, Trump’s Showdown methodically reveals how an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has grown to threaten Donald Trump’s presidency. The film draws on more than 60 in-depth interviews with former heads of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump insiders, attorneys, authors, and journalists.
Thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of archival footage help pull together the entire story – from the days just before Trump’s inauguration to increasingly chaotic recent events including the President’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and his furious response to revelations about Oval Office intrigue.
“The Special Counsel, the Washington establishment and the media are joined in a political struggle of historic proportions with the President and his supporters,” says filmmaker Michael Kirk (Putin’s Revenge, The Choice 2016, and Divided States of America). “We have been documenting the details of that battle step by step, as it reaches a critical stage for the President and the nation.”
Looking back over the nearly two-year trajectory of the story, FRONTLINE underscores several key moments. The program begins with the president-elect’s meeting with the leaders of the intelligence community just before his inauguration. In the meeting, senior officials warned Trump that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.
“It was several hours long. There was no equivocation in our language. And we were very direct, and very, very clear in terms of what it is that we knew and assessed,” former CIA Director John Brennan tells FRONTLINE.
At the end of the meeting, FBI Director James Comey privately shared with the president-elect details of a secret “dossier” of unverified and potentially compromising material – an encounter Trump would come to see as a “shakedown,” according to J.D. Gordon, one of Trump’s closest campaign advisors.
“We’re talking about politically appointed individuals using intelligence potentially as a weapon against people who they politically disagree with,” said former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka.
Starting during those early days of the transition, the battle lines were drawn for a confrontation between the new president and the Department of Justice and the FBI. As the investigation into Russian interference seemed to threaten the President and his family, Trump grew increasingly frustrated by what he viewed as a lack of loyalty from both FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He would ultimately lash out publicly at Sessions and fire Comey, leading to questions about whether he was trying to quash the probe into Russian interference.
The documentary traces the President’s combative approach to his adversaries to the mentorship of notorious attorney Roy Cohn, infamous for his role in the McCarthy hearings. Cohn was a key player in Trump’s first battle with the Department of Justice back in the 1970s, when Trump and his father were sued by the government for discriminating against black renters looking for apartments. Trump and Cohn hit back — accusing the DOJ of discrimination and comparing it to the Gestapo.
“In a pattern we can recognize from Trump to this day, attacking the accusers, attacking, indeed, the Justice Department, as a way to sort of throw a smokescreen around the original crime,” says Frank Rich of New York Magazine.
As Mueller’s investigation heated up, Trump returned to Cohn’s attack strategy. The President publicly attacked the Special Counsel, the FBI, and the Department of Justice.
“One thing we know about this President, he doesn’t care about collateral damage. And he doesn’t care about collateral damage on associates. And he doesn’t care about collateral damage on American institutions. And so the stakes could not be higher,” Jack Goldsmith, who served as Assistant Attorney General during the George W. Bush administration, tells FRONTLINE.
Now as the midterm elections approach and talk of impeachment grows, Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani have doubled down on a concerted campaign to undermine confidence in the authorities, the Justice Department, and Special Counsel investigation – and to use the country’s political divide to protect the president.
“Rudy Giuliani changed the strategy. He said, ‘Let’s really make this into a political confrontation. Let’s make it into a blue-red debate and conflict,’” says Alan Dershowitz, Emeritus Professor at Harvard Law School.
In tandem with the premiere of Trump’s Showdown, and as part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project, FRONTLINE will also publish an interactive version of the film that allows users to explore quotes from interview subjects in their original context.