American liberals and other critics of Donald Trump have been beset for weeks now with a growing sense of dread that the president will fire Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller, goaded into setting off a constitutional crisis by hyperventilating right-wing pundits and Republican members of Congress, all acting in bad faith.
These conservatives have seized on irrelevancies, like the fact that members of Mueller’s team donated to Democrats, and questionable concerns, like the fact that one of Mueller’s investigators appeared to hold Trump in deep disdain, to suggest the investigation is irreparably tainted by bias. (Note: Mueller is a Republican, FBI Director Chris Wray is a Republican, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is a Republican, and every prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton was a Republican.)
They have engaged in wild-eyed hyperbole. Tom Fitton, the president of the right wing advocacy organization Judicial Watch, recently asked “Do we need to shut down the FBI because it was turned into a KGB-type operation by the Obama administration?” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) argued at a House Judiciary Committee hearing this week that the Mueller investigation might cause people to lose faith in the American justice system, and that we might “lose the Republic” as a result.
A mixture of deductive reasoning and general Trump-induced dread points to the inevitability of Mueller’s termination. If his investigation is corrupt to the bone, and a threat to the survival of the republic, then how can people with the power to end it tolerate its continued existence?
Friends, the president and his far-right supporters in Congress are laying the groundwork to fire Mueller, especially as his investigation encircles the Trump family. This is not a drill. Please call your reps in Congress today and urge them to protect Mueller with legislation.
— Evan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) December 14, 2017
There is a slightly less chilling interpretation, though—one which doesn’t strain facts any more than the maximal crisis scenario. Conservatives rightly remember Trump’s impulsive decision to fire FBI Director James Comey as a disaster of unfathomable proportions. The right’s most influential propagandist, Steve Bannon, called it perhaps the biggest mistake in “modern political history.”
Firing Robert Mueller would be no less explosive. To the contrary, the political backlash could easily manifest in sustained mass national street protests reminiscent of the women’s marches that swamped U.S. cities after inauguration day. The less-impulsive of Mueller’s critics surely don’t want to walk Trump into a trap like that.
If goading Trump into firing Mueller would be worse than allowing Mueller to finish his work, that still confronts Trump allies with the small problem that Mueller keeps catching people committing crimes, and may ultimately conclude Trump himself is guilty of some.
No amount of whining about Mueller can stop those crimes from coming to light, but it might create enough insulation for Republicans in Congress to take no action if Mueller refers Trump’s crimes to Congress for impeachment, or if Trump pardons the indicted.
In their unhinged attacks on Mueller’s investigation, multiple Republicans have begun insinuating that all of its findings will have to be discarded as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” If Mueller ultimately finds that most of the criminal activity stemming from the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia amounts to process crimes, like making false statements and obstruction of justice, Republicans will easily convince themselves that lying to the FBI and obstructing its inquiries is fine so long as the underlying investigation was a witch hunt.
The problem for Republicans–apart from the fact that Trump is impulsive and dim enough to misread their signals and fire Mueller anyhow–is that they have no idea what crimes they’re preparing themselves to absolve. They may understand that convincing Trump to fire Mueller would be walking him into a trap, but if so, they have opted to walk themselves into one instead.
There is a debate underway among former federal prosecutors as to whether the plea deal Mueller struck with Trump’s disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn points to Flynn providing substantial cooperation or to Mueller hitting dead ends. If it’s the latter, then the political bet they are making, while ethically indefensible, makes some sense.
If it’s the former, they will soon find themselves forced to defend the view that Republicans are within their rights to team up with foreign spies to sabotage American elections, and that as long as Republicans win those elections, there will be no meaningful consequences for it.