The Mueller Gamble

Republicans think they can dissuade Donald Trump from firing Robert Mueller.

Photo illustration: side-by-side of President Donald Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller.
President Donald Trump; special counsel Robert Mueller.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images.

President Trump cannot stand to live in a world where he is vulnerable to serious scrutiny. It’s been clear, for some time, that Trump wants to end the Russia investigation and purge both the FBI and Justice Department of any potential adversaries. He has launched jeremiads against the “deep state” and regularly claims corruption and disloyalty within federal law enforcement.

But it’s only now, after reports of the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Friday, that a potential move against special counsel Robert Mueller seems imminent. Having removed internal critics and potential threats—with little resistance from within his own party—the president is turning his aim toward Mueller.

Trump spent the weekend on Twitter raging furiously against McCabe, the FBI, and the investigation, readying and rallying his supporters ahead of a likely confrontation with the special counsel. “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI,” said the president in one tweet. “He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”

In another, Trump took aim at Mueller. “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!” (That particular charge, made in Rep. Devin Nunes’ controversial memo alleging serious abuses of power by the FBI, was debunked in a dueling memo produced by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.) Underscoring the president’s rhetoric was a statement from his attorney, John Dowd, who told the Daily Beast that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should shut down the Russia investigation.

Trump’s attorneys subsequently issued a statement saying the president plans to cooperate with the special counsel, suggesting his advisers once again talked him down from the ledge. In the long run, the only thing likely to stop Trump from firing Mueller is the threat of actual consequences. At this moment, those consequences depend on Republican lawmakers in Congress. Some GOP leaders are fully behind the president and clearly skeptical of the investigation, like Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana: “I think there are credibility concerns the Mueller investigation needs to address so they can dispel the fears that this is becoming a partisan witch hunt.” Others, like Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, have been silent on the president’s recent rhetoric.

Still others have tried to split the difference, affirming their support for Mueller without issuing any particular threat or warning. “I remain confident that the special counsel is going to conduct a probe that is fair and thorough and is going to arrive at the truth and is not going to go down rabbit holes that are not places that we need to be going,” said Sen. Marco Rubio on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Special counsel Mueller has served our country with honesty and integrity. It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—unimpeded.”

How should we understand these varying Republican reactions to Trump’s rhetoric as he flirts with derailing the Russia investigation and sparking a bona fide constitutional crisis?

First and foremost, the Mueller reactions come as Republicans have reportedly made the decision to tie their electoral prospects directly to the president’s personal standing. Senate Republicans, even those in competitive elections, want Trump to campaign in their states. “Despite his unpopularity on the national level, Republicans insist there isn’t a state on the Senate map where they are nervous about deploying Trump,” Politico reports.

Republicans almost certainly know that an attack on Mueller would be catastrophic for Trump and his presidency, galvanizing opposition and virtually ensuring a Democratic wave in November. But they also know that a preemptive move against Trump could have a similar effect, bolstering Democrats and demoralizing Republican voters who still support the president. Jeff Roe, a GOP consultant who managed Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination, succinctly made this point in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. “If you are a Republican on the ballot, you are in the same boat as Mr. Trump, whether you like it or not…if enough Republicans run from their leader, the Republican brand will be so diminished as to produce historic defeats up and down the ballot,” Roe wrote.

Without speculating about what various lawmakers actually believe, it’s clear that this is the political calculation at hand: to both support Trump as a matter of partisan loyalty but also push him away from acting against Mueller until the elections. If Republican leaders survive with their majority intact, then they can re-evaluate. And if they don’t, then Democrats will likely use their newfound investigative power to move aggressively against the administration, free of the pressure to act.

It’s a rational gamble with a potentially catastrophic downside: It can backfire. Refusing to draw a clear line against Mueller’s firing bolsters Trump’s belief in his own invulnerability, making him more likely to follow through on his impulse to fire Mueller and threaten our constitutional order. If President Trump doesn’t fire Robert Mueller between now and November, Republicans—and the country—will have simply gotten lucky.