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Opinion A GOP senator’s remarkable admission about Trump and Mueller

President Trump railed against special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation on March 18, prompting a swift response from lawmakers. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)


President Trump just uncorked a new round of Twitter attacks this morning on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and on the English language, quoting one of his staunchest legal allies as follows: “I think President Trump was right when he said there never should have been a Special Council appointed because there was no probable cause for believing that there was any crime, collusion or otherwise, or obstruction of justice!”

Yet Republicans appear increasingly dug into their position. Their stance is that of course Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation, but they will not act legislatively to protect the probe, because this is not at all necessary, as Trump would never dream of taking action against it, since he would face severe consequences that Republicans will not enunciate in advance.

But a Republican lawmaker has just given away the real game behind this carefully crafted straddle. Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) was pressed by the Washington Examiner on why Republicans are hesitant to protect Mueller, and this is what happened:

Republicans in Congress are hesitant to antagonize President Trump ahead of ahead of difficult midterm elections, wary of sparking a backlash from a committed grassroots base more loyal to the White House.
Amid sky-high Democratic enthusiasm and a developing “blue wave,” Republicans can’t afford a war with Trump that depresses GOP turnout. Republicans might be worried about Trump’s attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, but they are reluctant to push back, much less support legislation to curtail the president’s ability to fire Mueller and sideline the federal probe …
“The president is, as you know — you’ve seen his numbers among the Republican base — it’s very strong. It’s more than strong, it’s tribal in nature,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who decided to retire when his second term concludes at year’s end, after periodically sparring with Trump.*
“People who tell me, who are out on trail, say, look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not,” Corker added.

This is a candid glimpse from a leading GOP lawmaker into what’s really driving the Republican straddle on Mueller. As I’ve noted, Trump’s attacks on Mueller are putting Republicans in a tough spot. The educated swing voters who are driving the Democratic anti-Trump resurgence support the Mueller probe and may vote to oust Republicans who won’t check Trump’s excesses. But Trump’s attacks probably rally GOP base voters, large percentages of whom see the Mueller probe as a witch hunt, making it harder for GOP lawmakers to protect that investigation.

Lawfare Deputy managing editor Quinta Jurecic breaks down the latest in what President Trump calls a “witch hunt.” (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Corker just conceded that this is the driving motive. He suggested that GOP voters equate being “with Trump” in a “tribal” sense with not acting to protect Mueller. Republicans are mindful of this as they craft their position toward Mueller, which includes rhetorical support for the probe but no new substantive limits on Trump’s power to do what they say they don’t want him to do.

After all, some Republicans have already sponsored bills that would protect Mueller from Trump, by creating a process under which any removal of the special counsel would be subjected to judicial review and reversed if it were not for good cause. But these bills are stalled, and Republicans have no intention of changing that.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday voiced strong support for the Mueller probe. But he again said there’s no reason to act to protect it. And Republican leaders privately rebuffed yet another push by Democrats on this front.

I’m told by Democratic aides familiar with the negotiations over the omnibus spending package that Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi asked GOP leaders to insert a provision that would have protected Mueller from action by Trump, aides familiar with the talks say. But Republican leaders rebuffed the request. (Politico also reported this.) I could not ascertain whether GOP leaders gave a reason for doing so. A GOP aide countered that this was never part of the talks.

At bottom, the GOP position is basically to beg Trump not to bring the issue to a head, without taking any action to prevent it — and without signaling what Republicans will do in response if he does. Making this worse, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck points out that if Congress does not act in advance, reinstating Mueller might actually prove legally harder than it would be to protect the investigation now. As Brian Beutler puts it: “Republicans pleading with Trump not to fire Mueller are more properly understood to be asking him not to put them in the position of having to capitulate.”

Corker has basically conceded that Republicans believe it would alienate the GOP base to signal that removing Mueller would meet with specific consequences. But if this is the case, and Trump does try to shut down or hamstring the probe, that would only further rally Republican voters behind him. Why would it be any easier to inflict consequences at that point? If, as Corker says, what matters most in this calculus is what GOP voters think of lawmakers’ tribal loyalty to Trump, it would only get harder. And really, why would Trump take any other lesson from what he’s seeing right now?


* Update: Senator Corker actually announced his retirement in September, before his big public battles with Trump. Also, Corker has publicly called for legislative action to protect Mueller, predicting “total upheaval in the Senate” if Trump tries to remove him.


* REPUBLICANS SPEND BIG AT TRUMP PROPERTIES: The Post reports that the Republican National Committee spent $271,000 at Trump’s private businesses in February. And this is part of a broad pattern:

Since his election, Trump’s private properties have attracted steady business from the RNC, party committees, congressional campaigns and outside groups, which spend anywhere from about $300 to over $160,000 per event, an analysis by The Washington Post shows. Dozens of Republican lawmakers and candidates have spent campaign or PAC money at the president’s properties since his election, The Post found.

It’s worth noting that in so doing, Republicans are rewarding Trump for his refusal to divest from his businesses as president.

* TRUMP MAY NOT GET HIS WALL: Politico reports that in the negotiations over the big omnibus spending package, talks on protecting the “dreamers” have fallen apart. But:

Congressional Democrats spent Monday and Tuesday pushing to freeze hiring of immigration enforcement officials in return for providing Trump more than $1 billion in funding on his border wall. Democrats and Republicans are likely to agree on about $1.6 billion in border funding that would help finance some fencing and security and avoid directly funding the large concrete wall that Trump wants, according to a Democratic aide.

If Trump had agreed to permanent protections for the dreamers, he would have gotten full funding for his wall in exchange. Now he likely won’t ever get it.

* TRUMP DEFIES TALKING POINTS ON PUTIN: Trump yesterday congratulated Vladimir Putin on his election victory, and The Post reports that he defied his aides in doing so:

Trump did not follow … a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call. Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

Experts have said Putin’s reelection was rigged, which has led other world leaders to hesitate before congratulating him. Not Trump. Trump loves a winner!

* PUTIN LEAK RATTLES WHITE HOUSE: Axios reports that the leak about Trump ignoring talking points on Putin has deeply rattled White House advisers:

The speed and sensitivity of the leak prompted immediate finger-pointing within the administration, as aides reeled from a leak that could only have come from a small group of people, each of whom is trusted with sensitive national secrets. Possible motives include concern about how Trump is handling Putin, frustration by the officials about Trump ignoring their advice, or internal power games.

Perhaps people around Trump want it publicly known that there is plenty of internal disagreement with his handling of Russia.

* DEMOCRATS CONTEST LOTS OF STATE LEGISLATIVE RACES: Steven Rogers, a Saint Louis University politics professor who specializes in state legislative races, calculates that Democrats are running candidates in 85 percent of contests in 16 states that make such info available:

More Democrats are running than in any election since 1982. … Democrats are running in record numbers at least partly in the hope of riding an anti-Trump wave, as Conor Lamb did last week in Pennsylvania.

This is potentially a huge deal. If Democrats can take back a good amount of territory on the state level, it’ll impact everything from health care to redistricting for the next decade.

* U.S. TRIES TO LIMIT JUNK-FOOD LABELS: The New York Times reports that in NAFTA talks, U.S. negotiators are trying to limit the ability of the three countries to warn consumers about the health threats posed by junk food and high levels of sugar, salt and fat:

Obesity has at least doubled in 73 countries since 1980.  Officials in Mexico and Canada … are discussing options like the use of colors, shapes and other easy-to-understand symbols that warn consumers of health risks. … But the Office of the United States Trade Representative … s pushing to limit the ability of any Nafta member to require consumer warnings on the front of sugary drinks and fatty packaged foods.

As the Times notes, this is because of pressure from “big American food and soft-drink companies.” It should also do wonders for struggling Trump voters in the industrial Midwest.

* AND TRUMP WARNS OF HIS OWN IMPEACHMENT: Trump said this at a fundraiser last night:

“The Democrats think they’re invincible,” Trump said. “I mean I watch this Maxine Waters. You ever see Maxine Waters? A low-IQ individual. Low IQ. ‘We will impeach him. We will impeach him.’ But he hasn’t done anything wrong. ‘It doesn’t matter. We will impeach him.’ … This is what we’re going to have to fight against.”

Whether or not it results in impeachment, which will depend on what Robert S. Mueller III finds, it is true that the only hope for any accountability for Trump lies with a Democratic-led House.