April 10, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
What Will the Republicans Do If Trump Fires Mueller?
We have some idea. Recall how they panicked after Trump fired Comey.
I’d like to expand on Jonathan Bernstein’s morning dispatch about what’s really at stake after the FBI raided last night the offices of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney. If the president fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller, what’s at stake, Bernstein wrote, is no less than the rule of law.
The question isn’t whether this or that person is the right one for the job. If Trump acts, the question will be — as it was in 1973 — whether the president is above the law.
That is precisely why the massacre blew up in Nixon’s face. Republicans didn’t care about Cox or the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, who was purged because he refused to fire Cox. When push came to shove, however, it turned out that many of them and many of their supporters did care about the rule of law.
I’m not sure whether Republicans in Congress realize yet that that could be what’s at stake.
I’m also unsure, but we do have some context to work with. Recall how the Republicans scrambled for an appropriate response to Trump’s firing last summer of FBI Director James Comey. That scramble came close to outright panic as leaks fueled headlines about how Trump fired Comey, and why (including Trump’s boasting to a couple of Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that getting rid of Comey was a relief.)
The Republican near-panic ended when US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein picked Mueller as the FBI’s special counsel. At that point, the GOP did not have to defend the president. When asked, they could point to the ongoing investigation, and that allowed them get on with the party’s business of cutting taxes for corporations and the rich.
This episode suggests that the Republicans do care to an appreciable degree about appearing to be on the side of the rule of law. It tells us also that the Republicans have a pretty good read on public opinion. Comey’s firing was simple to understand amid an amazingly complex series of amazingly complex events, and all the more damning for being simple.
Most people most of the time don’t know much about the law, and don’t care that they don’t know much about the law, but they do know they can trust law enforcement institutions like the FBI to care, and, most of the time, to do the right thing. I would add this probably goes double for conservatives who tend to be exceedingly deferential to hierarchies of power.
At the same time, most people, even the president’s supporters, now know after more than a year into his presidency that Donald Trump not only has a troubled relationship with the truth but appears wholly allergic to it. Public opinion surveys are showing majorities of Americans think he’s dishonest.
Put these two factors together—trust in the FBI, lack of trust in the president—and you have a context from which to reasonably infer how the GOP would respond if Trump fired Mueller. I’m not saying the Republicans would abandon the president to the winds of impeachment. I think much more would need to come to light for that to happen. But I am suggesting the Republicans won’t go along friction-free, because the cost of going along would be felt acutely.
Now, it’s true that the president can do and has done a lot to undermine the FBI’s credibility with the electorate, but bear in mind that he’s done a lot to undermine his own credibility—particularly with his own base. I can think of three ways.
One, the tax overhaul. The Republicans sacrificed support among affluent professional voters in high-tax blue states (the new law got rid of deductions for state and local taxes). Two, tariffs. The president’s pointless tit-for-tat with China is sparking concern as well as fury in big farm states that will suffer most from trade war. (News headlines in the Midwest are already using the word “con” and “betrayal.”) Three, the last budget. The Democrats pretty much got everything they wanted in that deal, and that enraged the base, so much so that the president and House Republicans are talking about ways to claw back some of those billions (it won’t work.)
When Anne Coulter tells readers they got snookered, when Richard Spencer tells followers Trump is weak, when Tucker Carlson resorts to stories about panda sex (I’m serious) to distract Fox viewers from the FBI’s raid, something is happening to suggest Trump’s base isn’t as strong as it was.
I think the Republicans understand something else, two things. One is that the people investigating the president are other Republicans: Mueller, Rosenstein, the whole lot. This puts enormous pressure on Congressional Republicans to stay on the side of the rule of law. Second, they will have opportunities to rationalize the outcome if Mueller’s investigation proceeds unimpeded. That won’t be possible if Trump fires Mueller.
As long as the water is muddy, the Republicans have a chance at damage control. Firing Mueller, however, provides unwelcome clarity. In a very real sense, Trump would “prove” he’s guilty of something by firing the man investigating him.
The Times reported this morning that Rosenstein personally signed off on the raid, infuriating the president. Something’s gotta give. I don’t think it’s a question of if.
The Times also reported that Trump cancelled his trip to Latin America to “oversee” the Pentagon’s response to Syria’s chemical weapons attack. I think it’s reasonable to surmise that, no, the president won’t. Instead, he’ll rage at the TV all week.
MSNBC’s conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt risked his credibility by hinting the “deep state,” as it’s called, is out to get Trump. Make no mistake: for the deputy attorney general of the United States to sign off personally on the raid of the personal lawyer of the president of the United States, he’d need to see extraordinary evidence. Safe to say, he saw it, and signed off. This isn’t the “deep state.” This is the rule of law.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.