The New York Times reported Thursday night that Donald Trump ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller last year, only to be dissuaded by White House lawyer Don McGahn, who told him such a blatant disregard for the rule of law would have what the Times called a “catastrophic effect on Mr. Trump’s presidency.” That calculation may have been correct as of June 2017. It is probably no longer true. There is every reason to believe that Trump’s party would continue to defend him regardless of how much justice he obstructs.
At the time McGahn gave Trump this grave warning, many Republicans not only supported Mueller, but endorsed legislation to protect the special counsel’s probe in case Trump attempted to fire him. These bipartisan bills seemed to be racing toward passage. But Trump urged Republicans not to pass anything. Soon, the party line was that it simply wasn’t necessary to pass a bill to protect Mueller because there was no risk Trump would ever fire him.
“I don’t hear much pressure to pass anything,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt. “There’s been no indication that the president or the White House are not cooperating with the special counsel.” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn scoffed that a Mueller firing was “just a hypothetical that, frankly, I don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The threat of a Mueller firing is just a scary Democrat hypothetical, so there’s no need to pass a bill ensuring it can’t happen.
In the intervening months, Republicans have dramatically ramped up their campaign to discredit Mueller as a biased liberal deep-state operative. House Republicans have conducted a counter-investigation that, operating within the closed loop of alternative conservative news, has cultivated an alternate reality in which the real scandal is the crimes being committed by law enforcement against Trump. Republicans have palpably moved from passively supporting Mueller, while dismissing the need to take any concrete steps to protect his work, to actively endorsing smears against him.
To get a sense of how Republicans would process news of a Mueller firing, consider how the Times report has played out on Fox News, the preeminent party organ. The news broke during Sean Hannity’s show. Hannity initially dismissed it as more fake news. “The New York Times is trying to distract you … how many times has the New York Times and others gotten it wrong?”
After a commercial break, Hannity returned and conveyed the findings by Fox News reporters, who did indeed confirm the story. “Yeah, maybe Donald Trump wanted to fire the special counsel for conflict,” said Hannity, shrugging his shoulders. “Does he not have the right to raise those questions?”
Fox & Friends, ignoring the fact that Fox reporters had confirmed the scoop, sneered at the news. It was merely “some new details that may or may not actually be true … do ya even care?” It’s false! Or maybe it’s true, but who cares. The line from denying Mueller faces any danger to justifying his firing can be traversed in a matter of seconds.
Even among party elites, who need more time to process a reversal of the party line and don’t take figures like Sean Hannity or Steve Doocy seriously, there is little reason to expect much resistance. The most useful barometer of the party elite is Yuval Levin, who writes for numerous prestigious conservative outlets (itself an indication of his influence) and whose positions tend to occupy the center of conservative-movement thought. Levin, like many Republican intellectuals, disdains Trump as boorish, undisciplined, insufficiently grounded in conservative ideology, and frequently unhelpful to movement objectives. And yet, judged from the standpoint of advancing conservative policy — the only standpoint most conservatives use to assess elected officials — he has always been preferable to the alternative.
Last fall, Levin co-authored a National Review cover story conceding that, yes, “Trump inclines to autocratic rhetoric about how only he can solve the country’s problems. He clearly admires foreign strongmen,” and so on, but it was Hillary Clinton who truly posed “a more concrete and specific threat” to the Constitution. It was not that Levin approved of Trump’s calling for the imprisonment of his opponents or refusing to accept defeat or urging supporters to commit violence or bringing white supremacists into his coalition. These traits still rendered him less dangerous than a president who would “normalize the immigration status of roughly half of the 11 million or so immigrants who reside in the U.S. illegally” or “require the states to regulate electricity production and consumption to meet a set of arbitrary carbon dioxide–emission targets” or other ghastly offenses against the republican form of government.
Levin’s most recent work is a review in The Weekly Standard of How Democracies Die, a book by two Harvard government professors, who explain how democracies backslide into authoritarianism. A central dynamic identified by the book is the choices made by potential governing partners for authoritarian politicians. In countries that have resisted authoritarianism, mainstream party leaders have shunned authoritarian politicians as a threat to the system. In countries where authoritarians have made more headway, they have calculated instead that authoritarians might be useful in advancing their policy goals and decided to ally with them despite any misgivings. The authors call this phenomenon “ideological collusion.”
Levin, who is a case study in ideological collusion, naturally dismisses the book as hysterical, a “rush to apocalyptic fears.” While cataloguing the Republican Party’s descent into extremism, he argues, the authors overlook the similar flaws of Democratic politicians. They condemn the dangerous rhetoric of Republicans who denounced Barack Obama as illegitimate and a socialist enemy of the Constitution, but commit the same sin themselves by describing Trump as authoritarian. “Without a hint of irony, they note that one of the ways the Tea Party movement undermined political norms was that it lodged the accusation ‘that President Obama posed a threat to our democracy,’” he writes. “Presumably this means that if you write an entire book arguing that Donald Trump threatens to bring the death of democracy, you are similarly justifying resistance to his administration by any means necessary.”
If you consider Obama’s center-left technocracy as dangerous to democracy, or more so, than Trump’s belief that law enforcement must be personally loyal to him — as Levin does — then this all makes sense. It is almost unimaginable for Trump to violate governing norms so ruthlessly that the bulk of the party would turn against him irreparably. The level of sophistication of these rationales will differ —with Hannity’s displays of instinctive canine loyalty defining the bottom of the range, and Levin’s equivocatory cleverness the top — but the outcome will be the same. Firing Mueller won’t be “catastrophic.” It will simply be another partisan scrum.
Whatever the Russia investigation finds, and whatever Trump does to quash it, or protect himself and his family, or pervert the FBI to rough up his political opponents, the dynamic that has protected him will remain in place. Trump will be popular among the Republican base. Republicans will need their base in order to hold Congress and protect their agenda. The alternative to Trump will always be a party that is left of center. Republicans may genuinely hope Trump does not fire Mueller. They may even wish that he would resign in favor of Mike Pence. But whatever he does, as long as he occupies the presidency, he will be their man.