opinion

Moment of Truth

Yes, This Is Going to Be Worse Than Watergate

In 1973, there were still some independent-minded lawmakers in the Grand Old Party. Today, not so much.

opinion

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Something changed last weekend, did it not?

The firing of Andrew McCabe. The statement by Trump lawyer John Dowd to The Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff that Robert Mueller should end his probe soon. Donald Trump’s tweetstorm just after that, his first tweets mentioning Mueller by name along with promises by aides that more attacks are on the way. The amped-up speculation that Trump will fire Jeff Sessions and replace him with someone who hasn’t recused himself so that someone can fire Mueller.

Somewhere in there also came an official reassurance by Trump lawyer Ty Cobb that the president has no plans to fire Mueller. Right. That’s about as reassuring as the NCAA promising that all that cheating is a thing of the past.

The temperature’s rising. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reports that this president feels he really knows how to do this job now, and from here on in we’re going to see Trump unchained. So the Trump we’ve been seeing has been chained? God help us.

Where are we headed? If Trump fires Sessions and brings in whomever, and that person does fire Mueller, we will be in the midst of a major constitutional crisis. The standard line is “the worst since Watergate.” But this one is looking like it could be far worse than Watergate. Why?

Because in 1973, we had a Republican Party with some independent-minded lawmakers in it. Here is The New York Times article covering the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973. The third paragraph states: “Senior members of both parties in the House of Representatives were reported to be seriously discussing impeachment of the president because of his refusal to obey an order by the United States Court of Appeals that he turn over to the courts tape recordings of conversations about the Watergate case, and because of Mr. Nixon’s dismissal of Mr. [Archibald] Cox.”

Take note: seriously discussing impeachment.

If Trump fires Mueller, could Haberman and her White House-based Times colleagues write that same sentence today? I very much doubt it.

Every time there’s a Mueller firing scare—and this is not the first; last June, Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, but McGahn refused and Trump backed off—a few Republicans, to their credit, do step forward and say he’d better not. Lindsey Graham. Jeff Flake. And this time around, Trey Gowdy. And now Bob Corker is talking tough, too. Great. That’s four. Out of 289.

They were semi-joined by Speaker Paul Ryan, sort of, who had a spokeswoman tell the Times on Monday that “Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.” Not exactly a bold affirmation. But a lot better than his Senate counterpart. From the same Times story: “Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had no comment, as did a number of other top Senate Republicans.”

That McConnell, the leader of the United States Senate, and other “top” Republicans are hiding behind “no comment” here is disturbing and telling. They don’t want to say anything that they might be held to when the dark day comes. In fact the last time McConnell said anything of note about Mueller was in late January, when he opined that the special counsel “seems to need no protection” from Trump.

That was a reference to two bipartisan bills, one by Lindsey Graham and Corey Booker and the other by Thom Tillis and Chris Coons, to block Trump from moving against Mueller. They were introduced with great fanfare last summer, when Trump first started dropping hints about a firing. At the time, most Republican senators went on record warning about the firm red line this would cross.

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By the fall, though, Graham and Tillis were saying such legislation wasn’t needed, as Mueller was under no threat of being fired as far as they could see. Today, those pieces of legislation are dead. Monday morning, I emailed Graham’s and Tillis’ press aides to ask if recent events had maybe produced a change in their boss’ assessment of the firing threat. “Not expecting any [changes],” replied Graham’s office.

Tillis’ office didn’t respond, but he tweeted in the afternoon that “Robert Mueller should be able to continue his investigation unimpeded, which is one of the reasons I introduced the Special Counsel Integrity Act with @ChrisCoons.” Which would be more encouraging if we had any sense he was lifting a finger to move that legislation forward.

As for Graham, he simultaneously says that Mueller needs no protection from Trump, but also that (as he said ominously on TV Sunday) Mueller is “following the evidence where it takes him, and I think it’s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference.”

Those can’t both be true, and Graham is being dodgy and evasive. But dodgy and evasive is better than what most Republicans are being. We are witnessing now a kind of settling in, a resigned acceptance that Trump is Trump and they aren’t going to take him on.

Corker on Monday actually became the only Republican in Washington willing to say he’d want to see such legislation pass. But he’s one man, who has a history of trying to be reasonable and then quickly caving once he saw that no one was joining his crusade.

At the same time that all this is going on, Politico reported Monday that Senate Republicans “are making a counterintuitive, all-in bet that Donald Trump will save their 51-49 majority.” GOP Senator Cory Gardner, who’s running the party’s Senate campaign committee, says Trump will be out there very actively campaigning for Republican incumbents and challengers in red and purple states. If they’re going to run with him, how are they also going to stand up to him when he precipitates a constitutional crisis? The answer is that they’re not.

The tweet over the weekend by former CIA Director John Brennan should have been sobering to everyone:

I hope Brennan is right. Unfortunately, triumphing over Trump’s venality is not in America’s hands. It’s in Republicans’ hands. D-Day is approaching for them. Will they take the beach—or take a powder?