Over the past week, Donald Trump has escalated his attacks on Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia. (On Wednesday, Trump’s attack took the form of tweeting out a quote from Alan Dershowitz about how Mueller should never have been chosen for the role.) Amid rumblings that Trump might move to fire Mueller, and with Democrats warning that such a decision could spark a constitutional crisis, many congressional Republicans have been silent. Those who have been critical have mostly refused to spell out the consequences of what a Mueller firing would cause them to do. And the House and Senate leadership still say they see no need for a bill protecting Mueller’s job.
To talk about the relationship between the president and his party, I spoke by phone with Tom Cole, a Republican congressman for Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District, and the House deputy whip. He has criticized Trump for things like falsely claiming to have been wiretapped by his predecessor, and for his remarks after Charlottesville, but he has also overwhelmingly supported Trump’s agenda. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Trump is a threat to democracy, how to understand the president’s psyche, and why congressional Republicans just refuse to put pressure on him.
Isaac Chotiner: How would you define the 14 or 15 months of this Congress, during the first part of the Trump presidency?
Tom Cole: I would call it actually productive, but also divisive. Productive in the sense that we’ve got, frankly, the most significant tax reform, tax reduction, in a generation. You have to go back to the 1980s. It’s also been a Congress, working with the administration, that’s done more on the deregulatory front than any other Congress, frankly, in modern American history.
I think Democrats are very entrenched and find it difficult politically to cooperate with this president. In that sense, it’s not unlike Republicans dealing with Obama.
How do you think the Republican Party has dealt with this president?
I think probably they’ve dealt with him in a very guarded way, in some senses. They by and large agree on agenda items, but not in all areas. You’ve seen some Republican rebellion, for instance, on the Russian sanctions. You see it on discussions about tariffs. The president has one view. Most Republicans in Congress are free traders.
The president ran as an outsider, very much so, and I think that still remains. This is actually part of his appeal and strength, an outsider to the ways of Washington and the traditional Republican political establishment. He beat that establishment in the campaign. There’s a certain amount of tension there. You can argue that sometimes it’s creative tension. Sometimes it just makes legislating very difficult.
What do you think about the Mueller investigation?
Well first of all, I think it needs to continue. If there’s no “there there,” in the sense of collusion—and I don’t think there is; I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest it—I think ultimately it will work to the president’s advantage. Mueller is seen as a guy of enormous personal integrity and a guy of enormous professional competence. If you get to the end of this, and the president’s not seen to have colluded or done anything wrong, the campaign has not done anything wrong, then that will be the ultimate vindication. If something is there, and again I don’t think that’s the case, but if there were, then that’s going to be extraordinarily dangerous for the president.
I’ll go back to something Trey Gowdy said this Sunday, which I thought was the line of the day. Speaking about one of the Trump lawyers: “If your client’s innocent, act like it.” So I don’t think undermining this does well. Now again, do I understand why the president’s irritated? Yeah. If you’re going through something like this—and remember this investigation began before Donald Trump was even president; it began in July—and you see some things like the emails that came out between FBI agents involved in the Clinton investigation that clearly were pro-Clinton and anti-Trump, you kind of wonder about this, and you see people spending enormous amounts of money in a very intrusive investigation.
I don’t think they shaped the election. I really don’t believe that. I don’t see any evidence that the election was driven by them, but I do recognize they tried to interfere. So it’s legitimate to try and understand how and why, and make sure that they can’t—that people have confidence in elections going forward.
The president seems to be someone who likes testing the limits of his office. Well, limits of all sorts, let’s say. It seems like there are a lot of Republicans who are worried that he might fire Mueller. But there have been bills proposed by Democrats to protect Mueller’s job, and Republicans have said no. “No, he’s not going to fire Mueller,” even though we know that he at one point tried to, and then the White House counsel threatened to resign. It seems to me that you’d want to set limits for him because he wants to push those limits. Congressional Republicans don’t want him to do certain things, but there’s no desire to actually enforce certain limits and enforce certain checks. And I don’t really get that.
I think sometimes you count on the institutions themselves. For instance, we know the president has been a lot slower to acknowledge the extent of Russian efforts, whether they succeeded or not, to impact the election. But none of the people around him have been that way. Pompeo, for instance, has been very forthright about this.
I think we don’t think he will go there. And I’m not sure, frankly, that a law is going to make much difference. There are executive powers here that are pretty firmly established. But I think the message has been sent pretty directly, and I mean pretty clearly. Look, I don’t know a single Republican, OK I’m sure there’s some, but most of them have said, “Look, don’t mess with the Mueller probe.”
So again, we’ll see. I don’t pretend to be able to predict what the president will do. I think to a degree he is unpredictable. And I think that’s been part of his M.O. his entire career, not just as the president of the United States.
Do you have any concerns about the state of American democracy, and would that answer change if Trump fired Mueller?
In terms of American democracy, I don’t have any concerns about the institution or the robustness of the democracy at all. Look, I think obviously we have a very free press, and it’s very aggressive. I think we have a very good, brisk political system. It moves back-and-forth between the two parties. I think it’s very hard for any politician to be held unaccountable. So when I see the president described as authoritarian, or people suggesting that we’re moving in that direction, I don’t see that at all. I do worry about our democracy in the sense that I do think the two bases, the respective parties, have, No. 1, become so antagonistic to one another. I think that’s been developing, by the way, long before Donald Trump. I think he just saw it and used it more effectively than any politician in the ’15, ’16 cycle. That does worry me.
In terms of democracy, I think Don McGahn gave the president very good advice if the stories that we hear are true. It would be a catastrophic mistake, in my opinion, to fire Mueller. The truth, whatever it is, is going to come out. If it’s to your advantage, you should want this to happen quickly. Now again, I understand being irritated. I understand investigations going off the lane.
I think a lot of prosecutors and investigators like high-profile politicians. Again, I understand that sort of concern, but in this case we’ve got witnesses. They’ve got cooperating witnesses. That is people who have pled guilty to things. They’ve got 13 Russians charged, which is, I think, totally independent of the president, but tells you—
The president’s former campaign manager and former national security adviser.
Yeah. So, let this play out.
If it’s a tainted investigation, I think we’ll be able to tell that. At this point, I don’t have any reason to believe it is.
If you take things like the House Intelligence Committee’s probe, there are a lot of signals coming from Republicans that they are OK with his behavior. The president is potentially going to get the Republican Party in a lot of trouble in 2018, and there will be more trouble if he fires Mueller. I just don’t understand the psychology of not trying to set more limits for him, in terms of your own political interest, or in terms of proper checks and balances.
President Obama got Democrats in a lot of trouble in 2010. I’m not equating the two; I’m just saying midterms are midterms. You’re going to have bad midterms. Almost everybody does. Actually, it tells me the system’s working the way it traditionally does. Again, we are going into tough headwinds. We’ve differed with the president on trade. We’ve differed with him on sanctions to Russia. But most of the time, look, if you’re pursuing traditional deregulatory policies, that’s where Republicans [are].
I mean more about issues of democracy and separation of powers, and things like that.
Yeah, the elections we’ve had, which suggest democracy’s working … It’s not like the president’s had a bunch of good off-year elections. I mean, Virginia was Virginia, New Jersey was New Jersey, Alabama was Alabama. I would suggest the democracy’s quite healthy, and the opposition is extremely energized.
I just don’t see the danger—
I meant about passing a law to protect Mueller. It just seems like it would be in everyone’s self-interest, and that’s the sort of thing I just have trouble understanding.
Well, you know, I think if people are worried about that, I guess they could. But I think the president would create a far bigger problem for himself by firing Mueller than by letting him run through. And I think that’s kind of the thinking because we know there’s resistance inside the White House itself. We know there are people there that are telling him, “Don’t do this. It’d be a huge mistake for you to do this.” And I think that sentiment has been expressed pretty uniformly by Republicans. That doesn’t mean that you have to go and … look, I think the consequences of firing him politically would be far, far greater. If you’re running a risk, it’s the risk that he might actually do it because I think the backlash would be tremendous.
I mean, let’s look at Comey. Had the president fired Comey on his first day in office, Democrats would have been cheering from the rooftops because I think he did intervene in inappropriate ways in the 2016 election, and he may well have cost Hillary Clinton the election with the last intervention a few days out before the ballot. That stuff was unbelievable to me. And most Democrats were calling for his head. Now, he’s being treated like a martyr. I’m not sure that he is. I think he’s a much more complex figure than either side has portrayed him.
OK, if the president fires Mueller, you’ll come back on for an interview with me, and I get to say, “I told you so.” And if in four years democracy’s in great shape, you’ll come on for an interview with me and you get to say, “I told you so,” to me.
Look, I think your concern, and it’s a legitimate concern it seems to me, is that one man is threatening democracy. I’m much more worried about the divisions inside the country that preceded Donald Trump and that I see playing themselves out in the legislative process every day. I see Democrats who want to compromise but can’t because they’ll be punished if they do. We had 151 Republicans vote against the fiscal cliff in the House because it was a “tax increase” and it was a deal with the devil. It was no such thing. Really stupid politics to do that. Really dumb. So there’s something wrong inside our system.
Look, I understand concerns, but again to me, we’ve got a deeper cultural problem politically in the country than Donald … Donald Trump is much more an expression of some of the challenges we have than the cause, in my view.
I notice you didn’t say anything about the House Intelligence Committee investigation when I mentioned it. Did you have any thoughts about that?
Well in my view, I think we’ll see because we’re going to have everything from an IG’s opinion to, at some point, a Mueller opinion and whatever. I think this is one where the report is broadly correct, in terms of the areas they looked at. I think what you’re seeing there, and what you may yet see on the Senate side, because I think the pressures are starting to manifest themselves there, is people reflecting the opinions of their respective political bases. I don’t have a problem with what the conclusions are here. I haven’t seen any reason to doubt them at this point, but there’s plenty of other evidence to come. Obviously, this is part of a process. On the plus side, they did say, “Yeah, look, the Russians were massively trying to get involved in our elections.”
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