The Crisis Is Now

Will the Senate Still Protect Robert Mueller From Donald Trump’s Ax?

Republicans talked big this summer about protecting the special counsel from the president. Did they mean it?


Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Remember the first round of gossip about whether President Trump would fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller, back during the summer? Republican senators were quick to say what a grave error this would be. Susan Collins said in June it would be “an extraordinarily unwise move” back. In July, Lindsey Graham said that “any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong.”

Most of them chimed in along similar lines. Consequently we were all assured: Yes, maybe they’ve been in the tank for Trump up to now, but surely they would never tolerate that. That is the moment when they’d say enough.

Well. We may find out about that very soon.

People keep saying “we’re close to a crisis.” No we’re not. We’re in it. We have a president who already obstructed justice on national television. If you’re trying to kid yourself that that isn’t so, imagine President Hillary Clinton having told Lester Holt back on May 11 that she fired James Comey over his investigations into her emails. If she had, the president today would be Tim Kaine.

A former national security adviser copped a felony plea. Three former campaign officials are under indictment. This has never happened in the first year of a modern presidency. Probably any presidency. And that’s just the legal stuff. Then there are all the lies. Obama spied on Trump (this one still has legs among the creatures of the black-ops lagoons of the far right). Trump has no Russia ties. Hillary sold our plutonium to Putin.

And finally, there’s the madness, which is slightly different from lies. The current madness is that Russia is great and can do no wrong, while the FBI is suddenly a subversive and un-American organization. And Robert Mueller is a partisan, pro-Clinton, Never-Trump pawn of the liberal order. At that House Judiciary Committee last week where FBI chief Christopher Wray testified, Ohio Republican Jim Jordan actually said that if every member of Mueller’s staff who was anti-Trump was kicked off the investigation, “I don’t know if there’d be anyone left.” Newt Gingrich (who in May called Mueller “a superb choice”) now says “Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt.” And Fox’s Jeanine Pirro spoke of a needed “cleansing” at the FBI of people who needed “to be taken out in cuffs.”

We have never been here. Richard Nixon and his henchmen subverted the law. They did not attempt to subvert reality itself. Nixon did not go around saying that in fact it was George McGovern who belonged in prison. A news network did not exist to scream on a daily basis that McGovern should face indictment, peddling false “scandals” about him. In the summer and fall of 1973, before Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, influential congressional Republicans and prominent former congressional Republicans did not go around saying that there wasn’t one honest investigator on Cox’s staff or that Cox was corrupt.

But these things are happening now. They are gathering steam daily. And they are all about blurring reality, making it confusing to people, hardening the base against Mueller so that when Trump does move on him, support for the decision will be solid enough in the GOP base that Republicans in Congress will just cower.

The news about the anti-Trump messages of Mueller investigator Peter Strzok, whom Mueller fired, was fed to The New York Times by “three people briefed on the matter.” From this we can assume that people being briefed on these matters include Trump loyalists; and from that, in turn, we can assume that every error, every slip-up a Mueller staffer makes will be leaked and amplified into an ideological crime to try to make Mueller seem compromised. One or two more stories like the Strzok one may be enough to muddy the waters.

Then Trump will move. He cannot fire Mueller himself. He has to order the Department of Justice to do it—namely, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Jeff Sessions recused himself on this matter). If Rosenstein refuses, Trump will presumably fire Rosenstein and appoint to his job someone who won’t refuse, and that will be that.

What, then, will our brave senators do? Right now, there are two “protect Mueller” bills in the Senate. Both are bipartisan. One, sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, codifies existing DoJ regulations that a special counsel may be removed only for cause. A second, sponsored by Delaware Democrat Chris Coons and the aforementioned Lindsey Graham, would require that a panel of federal judges review any firing of a special counsel before it is executed.

Sources tell me that the four senators are working to combine the bills into one and hoping to get it through the Judiciary Committee and onto the Senate floor for consideration. A spokesman for Graham, in response to my email questions, referred me to a statement Graham made in late October, when Graham said, “I don’t feel an urgent need to pass that law until you show me that Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy.” Apparently, Graham sees no such jeopardy right now.

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So here are some things to watch. Will this effort to combine the bills move forward? Will Chairman Charles Grassley allow a committee vote? Will Graham and Tillis vote for it (as one would hope and expect, since it would be their bill)? And, most of all, if the bill does materialize and get to the floor, how many Republicans will support it? Remember that back in the summer, nearly all of them said they would take the darkest view of Trump canning Mueller.

Such a move would constitute an assertion by Trump that he can get away with anything and the Republicans won’t stop him. Their moment of truth is coming. I hope they know it.