The Republican Party has sent mixed signals for months about how it plans to respond to Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russia scandal — President Trump’s ragetweets have been alternating with silence, and his Congressional allies have mostly urged patience. But in the days leading up to the first arrests, beginning today with former campaign manager Paul Manafort, the signals have changed, and the dashboard is now flashing red. The party apparatus is gearing up for a frontal attack on Mueller in particular, and the idea that a president can be held legally accountable in general.
The Republican Congress is using its investigative apparatus not to discover the extent of Russian interference in the election, but instead to lash out at Trump’s political opponents. The Republicans have developed a bizarre theory of alt-collusion, which holds that the real interference was Russia feeding false allegations against Donald Trump to private investigator Christopher Steele. Since the FBI investigated Steele’s charges, the FBI is the agency that colluded. And since Robert Mueller is close with the FBI, Mueller, too, is tainted.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page has been serving as a barely filtered outlet for this line of attack from Republicans in Congress. The page has called for Mueller to resign, and other Republican media outlets spent the weekend amplifying this message.
In today’s Journal op-ed page, two Republican former Department of Justice staffers, David Rivkin and Lee Casey, who frequently pop up in the media to defend party-line arguments, take the argument to its next step. They urge Trump to issue sweeping pardons to everybody involved in the scandal, himself included, so as to hopefully neuter Mueller’s investigation.
And would it be an overreach of sorts for Trump to quash an investigation into himself and his cronies? No, they argue. Indeed, they insist he can halt any investigation he likes:
A president cannot obstruct justice through the exercise of his constitutional and discretionary authority over executive-branch officials like Mr. Comey. If a president can be held to account for “obstruction of justice” by ending an investigation or firing a prosecutor or law-enforcement official — an authority the constitution vests in him as chief executive — then one of the presidency’s most formidable powers is transferred from an elected, accountable official to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats and judges.
Consider the breathtaking scope of this claim. They argue that the president can order any prosecutor or law-enforcement official to halt any investigation or criminal proceeding. What if the president hired some goons to break into and bug the opposing party’s headquarters? He could order the Department of Justice and FBI not to investigate and fire them if they did. What if he hired some goons to beat up or kill reporters or the opposing party? Same answer. The president, they argue, has unlimited right to protect himself and his allies from law enforcement as he sees fit.
Rivkin has previously defended Trump’s occasional demands that his 2016 opponent be locked up for various and largely imagined misdeeds. When Trump demanded in July that Congress and the Attorney General prosecute “Crooked Hillary,” Rivkin told the New York Times that the notion has some real merit. “As a policy matter, I would’ve said a few months ago that it was a bad idea,” he said at the time, “But with what’s going on in the Russia investigation, I am not sure that this is true anymore.”
In July, when Trump was calling for the prosecution of Clinton, he was also insisting he had the “complete power to pardon” himself or anybody else. The two courses of action — neutering investigations into himself, and ordering them against Democrats — seem to be linked in Trump’s lizard brain. House Republicans appear to be intent on generating investigations against Clinton and the Obama administration in pursuit of their spurious alt-collusion conspiracy. (One strand of this plan is a fixation with an insignificant deal to sell non-weapons-grade uranium, with which Clinton had a tangential role.) “This probe of the Democratic Party’s Russian dalliance has a long, long way to go,” reports Kimberley Strassel, the Wall Street Journal columnist and Congressional Republican message conduit.
The endgame for this strategy will be to demand the news media treat both investigations as equally legitimate. Then Trump can “magnanimously” declare that both of them are in the past and both should be ended.
The blessing of the Journal editorial page has enormous political significance. It is hardly out of character for the Journal to endorse abuse of the law for partisan ends. It spent the 1980s railing against the existence of any independent counsel, but once Democrats won the White House, the page flipped and began demanding prosecution of the Clintons for a wide array of crimes that included, the Journal believed, running a cocaine-smuggling ring and systematically murdering their opponents. The Journal editorial page has been insane for decades. But it also represents the party’s financial and political elite. Republicans in Washington call the page “the Paul Street Journal” for its eerie tendency to align with the positions of Paul Ryan.
Ryan, of course, is tacitly allowing his chamber’s investigative bodies to run point for Trump. The systematic elimination of any source of intra-party dissent has been one of the significant developments of recent weeks. Steve Bannon’s plans to purge the party have little ideological coherence, but (I have argued) are easily understood as an effort to cleanse its ranks of any members who might be inclined to uphold the rule of law at Trump’s expense.
At this point, the idea that Ryan would call off his party’s Congressional attack dogs, or hold Trump accountable for grotesque illegality, is little more than a punch line. We are watching an important marker in the GOP’s slow metamorphoses into an authoritarian party.