How far will the Republican Party go to defend Donald Trump? That’s an open question as he accumulates power and insulates himself from accountability. In recent days, we’ve learned that last year, Trump didn’t just fire FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the Russia investigation. Trump also told White House Counsel Don McGahn, a month later, to get rid of Robert Mueller, the special counsel who had been appointed to look into Comey’s firing and carry on the Russia investigation. Mueller is still in his job only because McGahn refused.
Republicans used to say Trump wouldn’t try to fire Mueller. But now that we know Trump has crossed that line, they’re justifying it. Their behavior is a double warning. It shows that our ruling party is willing to advance, in supportive lockstep, from one abuse of power to the next. But it also conveys, through the content of the GOP’s arguments, an invitation to further abuse. Here are 20 responses offered by Republicans and conservatives to the disclosure of Trump’s assault on Mueller, and why they signal danger ahead.
1. It never happened. The firing attempt has been confirmed by many sources in multiple news outlets. Nevertheless, Trump calls it “fake news,” and his aides are parroting that line. “I’m not aware of the president ever intimating that he wanted to fire Robert Mueller,” says Marc Short, the White House legislative director. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offers a similar denial.
2. Even if it happened, Mueller didn’t get fired. So, really, it didn’t happen. Newt Gingrich, the former GOP House speaker, calls Trump’s reported directive to McGahn “a non-story about a non-event. I mean, if the president didn’t actually fire Mueller … there was no event there.”
3. It was just idle conversation. “The president did not order Mueller to be removed,” says Sean Hannity, who has agitated for months to have Mueller removed. “It was just a conversation … about the possibility.” Trump’s directive was clear enough that McGahn began to pack his boxes rather than implement it. But, like Henry II’s famously lethal exclamation—“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”—Trump’s words can be spun by apologists as mere talk.
4. Mueller is still here. Therefore, Trump didn’t mean it. “We know that he didn’t fire Mueller,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham. “We know that if he tried to, it’d be the end of his presidency.” The obvious conclusion would be just the opposite: that Republicans, in the past week, have demonstrated their willingness to defend Trump despite his attempt on Mueller. But by Graham’s logic, anything less than success doesn’t count as an attempt.
5. Trump isn’t trying to fire Mueller. At least, not now. “The president is not considering firing Mueller,” says Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications. This echoes the famous 1998 statement by President Clinton’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, that “there is absolutely no sex of any kind” between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Clinton later argued that Bennett’s statement was true, since Bennett had said “is,” not “was.” Trump’s surrogates, by sliding into the present tense, are playing the same game.
6. Trump’s talk of firing Mueller was private. Therefore, it’s none of your business. Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump’s communications director, rebukes the press for exposing the attempt on Mueller. Scaramucci insists Trump’s conversations with McGahn were “privileged,” “private,” and “confidential.” “I did go to Harvard Law School,” says Scaramucci. “I know what a privileged conversation is.”
7. Trump’s talk of firing Mueller was public. Therefore, it’s OK. Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who prosecuted Bill Clinton, says Trump’s attacks on Mueller can’t be corrupt, since Trump didn’t try to hide them. “He’s very open about it: ‘I don’t like this guy. … He’s trying to ruin my presidency. I have the right to engage in self-defense,’ ” says Starr, paraphrasing Trump. Unlike a conspirator, Starr argues, Trump is “transparent. He tells everyone, ‘Look, I want to get rid of this guy. He’s a thorn in my flesh.’ ”
8. Only the deputy attorney general can fire Mueller. Susan Collins, the moderate Republican senator who keeps finding ways to justify Trump’s abuse of power, says we needn’t worry. “The only person who can fire Mr. Mueller is the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein,” she explains. “I questioned him at length on this issue, and he was adamant that he would never give in to any White House pressure to remove Mr. Mueller.” Collins ignores Trump’s efforts to force out Rosenstein, as well as Trump’s authority to replace Rosenstein, at will, with someone who will fire the special counsel, as President Nixon did to Archibald Cox.
9. Trump’s attempt to fire Mueller shows Trump is innocent. You might think that a president who tries to kill an investigation of himself is hiding something. But you’d be wrong, says Scaramucci. Trump’s real calculus, he argues, is: “There’s absolutely no collusion here. Why do we need this unnecessary distraction of a special prosecutor?” Graham agrees that this is Trump’s motivation. Only a man confident in his innocence would halt a pointless investigation of it.
10. Trump is just frustrated. Don’t focus on the president’s abuse of power, his apologists argue. Focus instead on his emotions. “If he thinks the Russia investigation is ridiculous, he’s going to express his frustration. I have no problem with that,” says Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host. Graham, Collins, and Starr make the same point. When the perp is their president, Republicans become the party of sympathy for the accused.
11. It’s just business. According to Starr, firing people who get in your way isn’t corruption. It’s just “business tactics.” Ingraham agrees. Trump is “a businessman,” she says. “He’s used to firing people when he doesn’t like them.” Two and a half years after Trump launched his campaign for president, his allies continue to argue, as a defense, that he doesn’t understand the difference between government and business.
12. It’s just politics. “Every president wants to get rid of critics,” says Graham. Don’t think of Mueller as the last remaining instrument of presidential accountability. Think of him as just another irritant. Of course the president wants to fire him. Everybody does it.
13. Mueller is biased. Trump, according to Short, thinks Mueller is unfit to investigate him because “the day before he accepted the position of special counsel, Robert Mueller interviewed to be FBI director, and never mentioned that to the president.” What Mueller should have done, by this logic, was to reveal the special counsel investigation, a day before it existed, to the most powerful target of the investigation. By portraying Mueller’s silence as evidence of bias, Trump’s defenders show that “bias,” in their view, means insufficient loyalty to Trump.
14. Mueller is superfluous, because there’s nothing to investigate. “Every single reason that Mueller was picked to be the special counsel has disappeared,” says Gingrich. Mueller hasn’t found any collusion, which was his job. So it’s fine to sack him.
15. Mueller is still investigating, even though there’s nothing to investigate. Therefore, he’s biased. According to Rep. Darrell Issa, you don’t need text messages or conflicts of interest to prove Mueller has it in for Trump. All you need to know is that Mueller keeps digging, when there’s obviously nothing legitimate to dig for. “It doesn’t look like he wants to resolve it,” says the congressman.
16. Mueller leaked the story about Trump trying to fire Mueller. Why is the attempted firing coming to light only now? Because Mueller and his team of Trump haters planted the story, suggests Rep. Sean Duffy. The sources are “four people familiar with the matter,” Duffy notes. “It calls into question: Is the Mueller team actually leaking some of this information out that they gained during their investigation to change the narrative away from the FBI and focus it back on Donald Trump?” As evidence for this insinuation, Duffy offers nothing at all.
17. Mueller is replaceable. “If he were to be let go, there would be a replacement,” says Issa. Starr agrees, pointing out that the investigation would continue. And even if Trump were to kill off the whole investigation, says Issa, the Senate and House are also investigating Russia.
It’s OK to fire or subvert cops, since there are always more cops.
18. The president is entitled to fire anyone. “He can fire Jim Comey, or he can ask for Mueller to be fired, for any reason,” says Starr. “The president’s power is extremely broad.” Authoritarianism? Fine with us.
19. The president’s motives can’t be criminal. Alan Dershowitz, the former Harvard law professor, isn’t a Republican, but he plays one on Fox News. “Everybody has mixed motives,” he says. To prosecute Trump for corrupt intent in firing Comey or Mueller, Dershowitz suggests, would be crazy and reckless, because it’s “creating thought crimes out of a president’s motives.”
20. The president is entitled to loyalty. “Every president expects some loyalty from the people who work under him,” says Ingraham. She offers this as a defense of everything Trump has done, including the attempt to expel Mueller. In Trump’s GOP, government serves the president, not the people or the Constitution.
At face value, these rationalizations are a joke. But politically, they’re serious. They’re being used right now to block legislation that would shield Mueller from Trump. “As of right now, I’m unaware of any effort—official effort on the part of the White House—to undermine the special counsel,” says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “So I don’t feel any particular need to reach out to protect someone who seems to need no protection.”
The long-term implications are more ominous. There seems to be no abuse of power Republicans won’t defend, and nothing they won’t say, to protect Trump. We used to have two major parties that believed in preserving America from tyranny. Now we’re down to one.