Why the Wall Street Journal Is Calling for Robert Mueller’s Ouster

Paul Gigot’s editorial page, explained.

FBI Director Robert Mueller

Then–FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington on March 12, 2013.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Over the past few days, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and Fox News have been pressing the case, both directly and indirectly, for removing special counsel Robert Mueller from his position. One theory is that the Journal’s editorialists and producers at Fox are simply doing the bidding of Rupert Murdoch, who owns both properties, and who’s gone from being one of Trump’s most prominent critics on the right to being by far his most indispensable ally. I see things a bit differently.

As Gabriel Sherman observed in his recent conversation with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, there’s reason to believe that Murdoch is deeply skeptical of Trump’s virtues, and that the pro-Trump tilt of Fox News is more a business decision than a matter of loyalty or principle. That is, Murdoch recognizes that Fox News’ viewership is ardently pro-Trump and that offering pro-Trump commentary is the surest way to hold on to it. The recent elevation of Laura Ingraham to the network’s primetime lineup is very much in keeping with this strategy. If Murdoch came to believe that the Fox News audience was souring on Trump, he’d surely be willing to change course.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is, I suspect, a different story. Though I have no doubt Murdoch follows the newspaper’s editorial line with great interest, Paul Gigot, the Journal’s editorial page editor and vice president, is no mere cipher who’d take a position on an issue simply because his boss demanded it. My guess is that Gigot and his colleagues have their own reasons for going to the mat on Trump’s behalf.

Since taking the helm of the editorial page in 2001, Gigot has been unwavering in his commitment to tax cuts for high-income households and his championing of open borders, building on the legacy of his predecessor Robert Bartley. At first glance, you’d think this would put him at odds with Trump, who has made immigration restriction his central cause, and who has repeatedly flirted with soak-the-rich, anti–Wall Street rhetoric that would normally make the Journal’s editorialists cringe. But that would be a mistake.

While President Trump is fond of populist symbolism, he’s never been detail-oriented, and he’s been mostly willing to defer to Republicans in Congress when it comes to crafting a domestic policy agenda. This creates an opening. If, like Gigot, you’re deeply concerned about the future of the GOP, the central issue is whether Trump is listening to supply-side Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, or the “redistributionist right,” a term the Journal’s editorial page uses to refer to conservatives who aren’t zealously devoted to cutting the top marginal tax rate. The Journal’s editorial page sees Trump as the lesser of two evils: He might be bad, but he’s better than the redistributionist Republicans.

Who are these foul redistributionists? It’s hard to say, as the Wall Street Journal hasn’t named anyone in particular. But their ranks presumably include Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has explicitly said she’ll vote against a tax reform package that eliminates the estate tax and lowers the tax rate on households earning more than $1 million. The Journal has also been harshly critical of congressional Republicans who favor large increases in the child tax credit, and especially those who favor making the credit refundable against payroll taxes, a position that’s been championed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Gigot might not love Trump. But as long as the Journal’s editorialists stay on the president’s good side, they can—in theory—steer him towards pushing supply-side tax cuts, deregulation, and free trade rather than, say, hiking taxes on hedge funders, trustbusting, and China-bashing. If the Journal were to wage war on Trump outright, however, there’s a danger the editorial page’s influence might wane and that the redistributionist right might gain the upper hand. So, how can Gigot curry favor with the president and make him more receptive to the Journal’s editorial line on the top marginal tax rate? Calling out special counsel Robert Mueller as hopelessly biased might do the trick.

Needless to say, I think the Journal is in the wrong. My sympathies are with the redistributionist right. As the GOP continues to evolve into a more working-class party, I imagine the party will grow more economically centrist, regardless of what happens to Donald Trump. For the Journal’s editorial page, this might prove to be a last gasp: The next GOP president will be even less likely than the current one to heed its supply-side message.