Republicans Are Slavishly Backing Trump At Their Own Risk
Legislation to make it harder for President Donald Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller found little momentum Friday, despite reports Trump attempted to remove the man investigating his campaign’s contacts with Russia last year.
Democrats described new urgency to protect Mueller after news that Trump ordered top White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire the special counsel, who is also investigating whether Trump has attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation. But the Republicans who control Congress kept mostly silent about the prospect of another attempted Mueller firing — and about the future of two bipartisan bills designed to prevent it.
There’s no rush, Republicans say, because they don’t see an ongoing threat by Trump to fire Mueller. Since July, when Trump tapped attorney Ty Cobb to help guide his legal strategy, the famously impulsive president has taken a more conciliatory approach to the probe and has repeatedly expressed a hope and belief that Mueller will treat him fairly.
As a result, Republican senators met Thursday’s reports with a collective shrug. Aides say they’re still in talks about combining Mueller-protection bills — one from Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), and another from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). But the GOP posture hasn’t changed since last fall, when they argued there was no need to expedite the bills because there was no urgent threat to Mueller.
Tillis spokesman Dan Keylin noted that the Mueller firing reports, which portray Trump backing down after McGahn threatened to quit, date back to June — two months before the bipartisan special counsel protection bills were introduced.
“Since the introduction of the two bipartisan bills, the chatter that the administration is considering removing Special Counsel Mueller has completely come to a halt,” Keylin wrote in an email. “In fact, the president and his administration have spoken favorably of Special Counsel Mueller’s professionalism and integrity, and recent reports indicate the investigation may soon come to an end.”
Tillis continues to support his Mueller-protection bill as “a commonsense solution to ensure the independence of present and future special counsel investigations,” Keylin added, and the special counsel “should be able to do his job without elected officials trying to score cheap political points.”
Staff for the four senators have reached a broad agreement about how to combine the two Mueller-protection bills, according to one source familiar with the talks, but the lawmakers themselves have yet to sign off. Tillis and Coons’ proposal would allow a special counsel to challenge a firing after the fact, while Graham and Booker’s measure would provide protection before a potential firing.
Keylin said the gap between the two bills “can be reconciled” but noted that “there are still two challenges moving forward: addressing the constitutionality concerns raised by some members and garnering the support needed to actually move a bill in Congress, which it currently does not have.”
Democrats were less at ease — and continued to clamor for quick action on Capitol Hill.
It’s unclear what, if any, new development would leave Senate Republicans willing to cross the president by advancing the Mueller-protection bills.
“Republicans have told us privately for months that there’s no way Trump would fire Mueller, so we don’t need to pass any legislation to protect the special counsel,” one Democratic aide said. “What’s their excuse now?”
One source tracking the talks said there is still more than enough room for the Senate to act on a bipartisan basis in defense of Mueller, “if people are willing to do publicly what they say privately.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) held a hearing last year on the Mueller-protection bills and said Friday that he remains amenable to advancing them once they are combined.
“I’ve said for a long while now that the president, and everyone else, ought to let Mueller do his job and get through his investigation,” Grassley said through a spokesman.
“But if these latest reports are true,” he added, “it seems to me that they show the president listened to good advice from his advisors. Based on his statements from the last couple weeks, he and his lawyers appear to be cooperating with Mueller.”
Efforts to protect Mueller in the House have found even less GOP support.
Speaking realistically, it’s unclear just how successful this effort to protect Mueller’s investigation would be from a political perspective. Even if it did receive bipartisan support, there’s a better than even chance that it would face problems getting signed into law. Sure, a Presidential veto would raise eyebrows but we already know that President Trump doesn’t really care about raised eyebrows. Moreover, the Trump Administration would likely paint a veto in the light of an argument that they are acting to preserve the authority of the Executive Branch over its employees and to prevent Congress from interfering with the Separation of Powers. Many Americans probably wouldn’t buy that argument, but his supporters would and, most likely so would many Republicans on Capitol Hill. In the event of a veto, Congress would have to decide whether to attempt to override the veto and the odds that supporters would be able to garner the 2/3 majority to do so. Even if they did, it’s probable that the new law would face an immediate court challenge based on the aforementioned Separation of Powers argument, and that argument just might end up being successful.
To a large degree, though, this legislative effort is as much symbolic as it is aimed at actually accomplishing anything. Democrats and those Republicans backing the measure in the Senate are trying to send Trump and his Administration a signal that taking steps to fire Mueller or otherwise interfere in the Russia investigation would be taken seriously by Congress. To that extent it represents yet another litmus test for Republicans on Capitol Hill to determine just how much they’re willing to tolerate from this President, and how far they’re willing to go to defend him even in the face of overwhelming evidence that, as Kathleen Parker put it this morning, he really seems to be hiding something. More importantly, it’s yet another sign that Republicans are ignoring the darkening storm clouds, as former Congressman and Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough argues:
We learned this week that President Trump in June ordered the firing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but few Republicans on Capitol Hill bothered to raise an eyebrow. In more settled times, this kind of presidential assault on an independent investigation would have stirred grave concerns throughout the halls of Congress. But Trump’s corrupted coalition has instead trotted out one twisted conspiracy theory after another, all designed to distract the president’s most fevered fans and concoct a case against Mueller’s investigation.
Wild tales of secret societies, Obama wiretaps and “deep-state” conspiracies flow freely from the tongues of Trump apparatchiks. Those preposterous narratives are then spread across cable news networks and inside Capitol Hill cloakrooms.
Not so long ago, Republican leaders prided themselves on protecting middle-American minds from the liberal intellectual rot being spread by politicians and college professors they viewed as being hostile to law enforcement, contemptuous of constitutional traditions, indifferent to personal morality and accommodating to Russian tyrants. They claimed to be the intellectual heirs of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr. Now those same politicians debase themselves daily in service to Trump.
In the Age of Trump, it is no longer in vogue to stand athwart history in defense of American institutions, constitutional norms and cultural traditions. These days, Republicans’ intellectual firepower is rather focused on defending Stalinist attacks on the press and pricey payoffs to porn stars.
The president now finds himself in full panic mode. The revelation that Trump ordered the firing of the special counsel charged with investigating the White House is just one more in a long line of desperate attempts to derail his Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference during the 2016 campaign.
As a storm gathers over Washington and the world, Donald Trump’s Republican Party remains complicit in his frenzied efforts to undermine the American institutions and established values that conservatives once claimed to share.
And while the clouds overhead are cause for all to be concerned, it will be the husk of a once-proud Republican Party that will be swept away first by the deluge that is sure to come.
On some level, of course, what we’re seeing is just part of the natural tendency of members of a party to rally around an embattled leader. It’s occurred under past Administrations even when there were serious allegations made against a sitting President or a party leader. For example, while there were many Republicans in Congress at the time of Watergate who criticized the Nixon Administration, for the most part, the party remained united behind a President that many in the public saw as being subjected to unfair attacks by the media and Democrats. It wasn’t until virtually the end, and most especially the release of the Oval Office tapes as required by the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Nixon that Republicans started to really turn against the President, and to join people like Senator Barry Goldwater in urging him to resign rather than put the nation through the turmoil of Impeachment and a trial in the Senate that would inevitably have resulted in his removal from office. We saw something similar during the Iran/Contra Scandal under President Reagan, during the Impeachment and trial of President Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, and during the Obama Administration. This time, though, there is clearly something different going on, and it’s clear, a Scarborough argues, that Republicans are taking a big risk by allying themselves so closely with the President.
While we haven’t reached the point in the Russia investigation where there is even clear evidence of collusion between Russians and Trump or people close to him, the manner in which the President has acted or attempted to thwart the investigation into Russian interference in the election and any ties between his campaign and Russian officials certainly raises suspicions. It began early in his Administration when, just days after firing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying about his contact with Russians, the President implored F.B.I. Director James Comey if he could end the investigation of Flynn. It was around this time that Trump asked Comey for his personal loyalty something that Comey uncomfortable enough to take the somewhat unusual step of memorializing his conversations with the President in writing. Three months later, Trump abruptly fired Comey mere days after he had testified about the investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign before a Senate committee. While the Administration claimed at first that the decision was based on Comey’s conduct during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified material while Secretary of State, Trump later openly admitted that he took that later action specifically because of the Russia investigation. In the months that followed, Trump contacted the heads of the intelligence agencies and leaned on them to bring the investigation to the end and to apparently influence their testimony before Congress and get them to state that Trump and his campaign did not collude with Russia or Russian officials. Additionally, Trump himself was directly involved in the drafting of a statement released by the White House related to the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials and a lawyer with ties to the Russian government that was initially sold to Trump Jr. as being for the purpose of passing along damaging information about Hillary Clinton. That statement, of course, falsely claimed that the meeting was solely about the issue of the adoption of Russian children by American couples, something we now know to be false. Finally, it was reported that Trump pressured several Republican Senators to end the investigation being conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee and also, apparently, to lobby against, the legislation that Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina had introduced to Taken together, all of this shows what looks for all the world like a clear effort on the part of Trump and his Administration to undermine the Russia investigation and, arguably, to obstruct justice.
In addition to the revelations regarding the Russia investigation, the President’s behavior remains as outrageous as it was when he was a candidate for President. He continues to use his Twitter account to attack enemies real and imagined and to attack institutions such as the media as “Fake News” whenever they report negative information about him. His obsession with the outcome of the 2016 election seems is so extreme that barely a week goes by where he doesn’t mention either the size of his Electoral College win, which wasn’t very large by historical measures or Hillary Clinton even fourteen months after the election ended. In the wake of the Charlottesville incident, Trump blamed ‘both sides’ for the violence and refused to directly condemn groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was present at the rally, or the broader so-called alt-right movement whose supporters made up the vast majority of the participants. The outrage over these comments was sufficiently broad, even from fellow Republicans in Washington, that the White House was compelled to have Trump deliver a follow-up comment the following Monday that was more measured and emphatic than what he had said before. Whatever damage had been repaired by that statement, though, was short-lived since less than twenty-four hours later when Trump repeated his ‘both sides’ argument and did so again more than a month later. Most recently, during a White House meeting about immigration policy, the President made his now infamous comments about immigrants from “shithole” countries. Throughout all of this, the GOP has either remained largely silent except for a few notable exceptions, or it has defended him slavishly.
All of this is occurring in a year that already appears as if it is going to be a difficult one for Republicans and their control over both chambers of Congress. The President’s Job Approval remains historically low for a newly elected President, and the Generic Congressional Ballot is showing Democrats with an advantage, albeit one slightly smaller than it was a month ago. All of this has led Republicans to grow increasingly concerned about what this portends for the House, Senate, and even Governships. at the midterm elections in November. Inevitably, it’s likely that the GOP will lose some ground, of course. As I’ve noted before, it’s historically been the case that the President’s party loses seats in the first midterm of his Presidents, with the only recent exception to that rule coming in the 2002 midterms, which occurred just fourteen months after the September 11th attacks at a time when President Bush was still riding very high in the polls. In recent year, though, we’ve seen midterms that have had a real impact on the balance of power. It happened in 2006 when Democrats regained control of the House and Senate for the first time in more than years, again in 2010 when Republicans gained control of the House and picked up seats in the Senate, and yet again in 2014 when Republicans gained nine seats in the Senate and picked up more seats in the House. This time around, thanks to President Trump’s historic unpopularity an a number of other factors, it could potentially happen again. If it does, then Republicans will have only themselves to blame, and their slavish and pathetic defenses of this President will likely play a large role in the process.