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Opinion If Trump tips into full-blown authoritarianism, will Republicans step up? Don’t count on it.

(Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse)


If President Trump took the drastic step of trying to remove special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, would congressional Republicans step up and act to constrain him?

In an interview with me today, Rep. Adam Schiff — the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — made the stark argument that there is no guarantee that this would happen, though he said he expected that they probably would. Reports today say Trump may be mulling this move.

“My expectation would be that this would be the last straw for Republicans — that they would finally have to stand up to the president,” Schiff told me. “Of course, that expectation has proved illusory in the past. So there’s no guarantee.”

Schiff pointed out that there were broad expectations that Trump would not fire former FBI director James B. Comey, the last law enforcement official leading a probe into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian efforts to sabotage our election. Mueller has since taken over this probe, and he may also be investigating whether the interactions between Trump and Comey — described in testimony by the former FBI director — constitute obstruction of justice.

“Before Comey was fired, and I was asked, ‘Do I think the president could possibly fire Comey?,’ I said, ‘For a normal president, the answer would be absolutely not,’ ” continued Schiff, who has emerged as a prominent Democratic point man on the ongoing congressional probes into Trump and Russia. “But with this president, who can say?” Republicans, Schiff added, “have shown a willingness to make excuses for the most destructive behavior of a president in office that I can remember.”

Trump appears to be mulling this step. A confidant of Trump says he is considering it. The confidant, Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy, told CNN this morning that he had not personally discussed this with the president but added that “it’s a consideration the president has had.” The New York Times reports that the idea took the White House “by surprise,” but adds that press secretary Sean Spicer is not flatly denying it, noting that Spicer said that “only the president or his attorneys are authorized to comment.”

Trump’s lead attorney, Marc Kasowitz, also declined to comment. Another one of Trump’s lawyers refused to answer when pressed on this point on ABC’s “This Week.” All this, along with everything Trump has already done to confirm his autocratic and authoritarian tendencies, suggests that the move needs to be treated as being within the realm of the plausible.

Can special counsel Robert Mueller still be fired? Here are four things to know. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Could Trump pull it off? Jack Goldsmith, a senior legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, has a new piece grappling with this question. The short version: Justice Department regulations permit the attorney general — in this case, it would be deputy Rod J. Rosenstein, because Jeff Sessions has recused himself — to remove the special counsel if he engages in misconduct or “for other good cause.” But Trump could try to invent a “good cause” and order Rosenstein to fire Mueller.

If this happened, Goldsmith writes, presumably Rosenstein would resign, and at that point, complicated succession questions at the Justice Department would take over. But the bottom line is that Trump might be able to get Mueller out — perhaps via a presidential directive that overrides the regulatory need for “cause” and simply fires Mueller. At that point, it’s not clear what would happen.

In a follow-up interview with me, Goldsmith said Congress could act legislatively to reinstate Mueller. But if it really came to this, Trump would probably veto any such effort, and Goldsmith added: “Action by statute against the president on the Mueller issue would likely require veto-proof super-majorities.”

That would mean that at least a dozen GOP senators, and more than 40 GOP representatives, would have to join such an effort. In our interview, Schiff said he thought this would likely happen.

“We would probably take up a bill that would establish an independent counsel for the purposes of this investigation, and give the appointment power to legislative leaders who would appoint Bob Mueller,” Schiff said. “That’s what I hope and expect would happen. But you have to admit the possibility that Republicans, against all reason, would continue to serve as enablers of this president.”

Such a bill would probably “pass by a veto-proof margin,” Schiff told me. “And then it’s very unlikely you would get people wanting to change their votes. I certainly wouldn’t want to have that vote on my record. It’s worth the White House understanding that if they take this extremely destructive step, they’ll have to fight a legislative effort to establish an independent counsel with Bob Mueller as the designee.”

A breaking point? Maybe.

It is, of course, very possible that the removal of Mueller would constitute a breaking point for congressional Republicans. If anything would, you’d think this would be it. But keep in mind that many Republicans — such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) — are now committed to the public line that Trump’s excesses are merely rooted in his inexperience and background — in his lack of knowledge of protocol, his habit of wielding maximal control over an organization as a business leader, or his affection for the theatrics of disruption. Trump, goes this line, merely has to learn the rules.

If Republicans were to state right now that firing Mueller is a red line for them, it would require an acknowledgment that this whole “Trump as naif” narrative is just nonsense — that the problem is not that Trump needs to learn the rules, but rather that he does not believe the rules should apply to him. This acknowledgement would implicitly implicate Republicans, because the spin itself requires pretending that they have not spent the past five months looking the other way while Trump amply demonstrated his bottomless contempt for the rules. It requires pretending that they have not actively enabled the serial trampling on rules, norms and constraints — the abuses of power and contempt for the rule of law and our institutional processes — that have characterized Trump’s presidency since the beginning.

Meanwhile, some prominent conservative media voices have now taken up the cause of attacking Mueller and saying that he must go, which, if it escalates, might increase pressure on Republicans to stand by Trump if he removes him. Given all this, is there any reason to be all that sanguine that Republicans would act in the necessary numbers necessary to constrain him if he does go there?

* SENATE GOP HEALTH BILL IS STILL BEING KEPT SECRET: Today GOP senators will meet to discuss their repeal-and-replace bill, but CNN reports that the bill itself is still being kept under wraps:

Asked if there would be a bill to show senators at the GOP lunch Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said simply, “No.” One GOP aide anticipated the meeting would be a red-light, green-light, yellow-light situation, where committee staff will get feedback from members and then determine if they are where they need to be to transform proposals into legislative text.

How much time will there be between the release of the bill text and the vote on it? A few days? Or maybe it will be measurable in hours.

* RUSSIA THREATENS FUTURE ELECTIONS: Bloomberg Politics reports that the Russian cyberattack on our election was far more widespread than initially thought and included efforts to target voter databases and software in multiple states. Conclusion:

The new details … show the scope of alleged hacking that federal investigators are scrutinizing as they look into whether Trump campaign officials may have colluded in the efforts. But they also paint a worrisome picture for future elections: The newest portrayal of potentially deep vulnerabilities in the U.S.’s patchwork of voting technologies comes less than a week after former FBI Director James Comey warned Congress that Moscow isn’t done meddling.

Reminder: An independent probe into this Russian sabotage could establish what happened and help ward off future attacks, separate from the question of whether there was any collusion.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 13, there's a lot lawmakers want to straighten out. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

* SESSIONS WILL FACE VERY TOUGH QUESTIONS: Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee today. The Associated Press previews what he’ll be asked about:

Sessions is likely to be asked about his conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and whether there were more encounters that should have been made public. And he can expect questions about his involvement in Comey’s May 9 firing, the circumstances surrounding his decision to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation, and whether any of his actions — such as interviewing candidates for the FBI director position or meeting with Trump about Comey — violated his recusal pledge.

Sessions was in the meeting with Trump and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, at which Trump asked them to produce a memo justifying the firing of Comey. We need more details on that.

* ANOTHER LINE OF QUESTIONING: A senior aide to a Dem Senator on the Intelligence Committee emails me that Sessions will be asked to comment on a scenario in which Trump pardons former national security adviser Mike Flynn, whose alleged ties to Russia are being scrutinized:

One question for Sessions: have there been any conversations about the possibility of Presidential pardons for anybody connected to the investigation – like Michael Flynn? After the unprecedented act of firing the Director of the FBI as he was actively involved in an investigation of the President’s campaign and associates, this is a fair question to ask. As Senator, the Attorney General said that President Obama’s use of the pardon to commute sentences of non-violent drug offenders was an “alarming abuse of the pardon power” and a “danger” to the constitution. The question is – would he say the same about possible pardons for any Trump associates connected to the Russia investigation?

So look for that.

* SENATE CHALLENGES TRUMP ON RUSSIA: CNN reports that Senate leaders have reached a deal on a measure that would inflict new sanctions on Russia, and it’s expected to have broad bipartisan support:

The proposal would provide for a congressional review process if the executive branch eases current sanctions on Russia. And it imposes new sanctions in a number of categories, including those “conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government” and “supplying weapons to the Assad regime.” … a senior source on Capitol Hill said the White House is not fighting congressional efforts to push through the measure.

So here is one area in which Senate Republicans are willing to try to constrain Trump, and he doesn’t appear inclined to resist those efforts.

* LIBERAL GROUPS PRESS JUSTICE DEPARTMENT ON TRUMP: A coalition of liberal groups — including United to Protect Democracy, Common Cause and People for the American Way — has sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general, demanding that he act to shore up the department’s independence in the face of Trump’s efforts to undermine it.

The letter argues that the widely reported contacts between Trump and senior Justice Department officials about matters involving the probe into the Trump campaign violate internal department policy and that this is a matter for the IG — separate from the special counsel’s ongoing probe — to investigate and act upon. It’s another area on which scrutiny may focus as this story continues to evolve.

* AND HOW DEEP IS THE SPLIT AMONG DEMOCRATS? E.J. Dionne Jr. has a nice column on the Virginia gubernatorial primary set for today, in which he worries that the battle signals a deeper schism that could ultimately work against Democrats:

I worry about the bitter tone that often afflicts this internal argument. My reading of both the polls and the national temperament is that the center cannot win without the left — but also that the left cannot win without the center … The Sanders wing is right that without the energy of progressives, particularly those under 30, Democrats cannot win. But there are many middle-of-the-road voters who despise what Trump is doing to our nation and are in search of ways to push back. They are looking for moderate progressives to form coalitions with them.

My general sense is Trump will keep Democrats loosely united even if this argument continues to deepen — and that in some ways the argument is a good one for Democrats to have.