Last week, I warned that “we are witnessing a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of a guy who, yes, made some mistakes—but who also appears to be an honorable public servant.” I was talking about former FBI Director James Comey. But perhaps I should have been talking instead about Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump administration, who is now rumored to be on the chopping block.
In recent days, we have seen a) evidence of a concerted effort to undermine Mueller’s credibility, and b) leaks about the possibility that Mueller could be fired by Trump. (Technically, the Justice Department would have to fire him—but Trump could order his firing and, eventually, find someone at Justice who would carry out his order.)
The attacks on Mueller have been swift and surprising. On May 17, Trump loyalist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted, “Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity. Media should now calm down.”
But by June 12, Gingrich had completely reversed course. “Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel [Mueller] is going to be fair,” Gingrich tweeted. “Look who he is hiring. check fec reports. Time to rethink.” (FEC = Federal Election Committee)
He’s not alone. On June 11, Trump booster Ann Coulter tweeted that “Sessions should fire Mueller.” But this was a reversal from her May 17 tweet declaring that “People who have most to worry about with appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller: Hillary, Loretta Lynch, John Podesta, Bill Clinton…”
In fairness to Gingrich and Coulter, new information about Mueller has emerged and is being used to suggest he is biased toward Comey—and that he has other conflicts of interest. But these concerns seem like weak tea—part of an orchestrated effort to undermine the credibility of anyone who might investigate the Trump administration. Indeed, Mueller was a decorated Marine who served Presidents Reagan and both Bushes. He was the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover.
Attacking Mueller was step one. Floating the idea of his ouster (whether this is to normalize the idea—or to float a trial balloon) appears to be step two. First, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow wouldn’t rule out firing Mueller on Sunday. Then, Trump friend Chris Ruddy walked out of the White House and onto a PBS News Hour set to declare that President Trump is “considering perhaps terminating” Mueller on Monday.
Now, my guess is that this won’t happen. For one thing, unlike the Comey firing, Trump has now had the benefit of seeing the potential backlash this would unleash. Then again, we are talking about Donald Trump. It’s entirely plausible that he might fire Mueller. What would stop him from simply pardoning anyone in his administration that violates the law?
If it sounds like a theme is emerging, it is. Thanks to Donald Trump, there is a new calling: preservation of small “r” republicanism.
The role of opinion leaders, of course, is to lead opinions. It’s not enough for writers to opine on things. Preservation of liberal democracy requires persuasion of the public, who will―in turn―pressure elected officials. But all too often it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” If the people injecting ideas into the body politic are corrupt, weak, or incompetent, then the public will mirror that. Here’s hoping that enough Americans are concerned enough about the preservation of liberal democracy to be viscerally repelled by the circus we are witnessing.
Since Democrats can be counted on to reflexively oppose this Republican president, my message here is aimed primarily at patriotic Republicans: It’s time to take a stand, if you care about things like separation of powers, the rule of law, and preserving norms and the balance of power. We need to hold powerful people accountable because the Founding Fathers cared deeply about creating a form of government that would check an imperial presidency.
So what happens if Trump does fire Mueller? Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Member on the House Intelligence Committee, has tweeted that “If President fired Bob Mueller, Congress would immediately re-establish independent counsel and appoint Bob Mueller. Don't waste our time.” This is a leap of faith. It’s unclear at best whether Republicans would support such a move, and that’s a problem.
Congressional Republicans should immediately voice their opposition to the potential firing of Mueller, and state that such action would warrant the immediate re-establishment of an independent counsel. If you’ve spent years claiming to be a maverick (looking at you, John McCain and Lindsey Graham), a thoughtful conservative (Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse), or a constitutional conservative (Ted Cruz and Mike Lee), then now is your time to walk your talk.
I’m not optimistic that such leadership will emerge from a co-equal branch of government. It surely hasn’t emerged from within the executive branch. A couple weeks ago, I warned about the cult-like obsequious “Dear Leader” rhetoric coming out of the White House that reflects reverence usually reserved for the Almighty. On Monday, this pattern repeated, when numerous cabinet members heaped praise on Trump. White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus’s remarks were especially submissive and sycophantic. He thanked the president for “the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people.” It’s unclear whether failure to bow to this president would rate a trip to a fiery furnace, but the comment sounded more like worship than politeness.
My point is that there aren’t a lot of adults on the inside who are willing to stand up to this president. It may be that Donald Trump has provided us all with a purpose. Our response during these times may well define us.