You could be forgiven for missing it amid all the other things that are going on, but Michael Cohen’s legal team made an astonishing and ominous claim this week. After the FBI scooped up documents from Cohen’s office in a raid last week, his lawyers sent a letter to the relevant judge demanding that a third-party review the seized material. Why? To “protect the integrity of the government’s investigation from the toxic partisan politics of the day,” the letter claimed, noting that “there is a growing public debate about whether criminal and congressional investigations by the government are being undertaken impartially, free of any political bias or partisan motivation.”
Needless to say, this “growing public debate” is largely a product of President Trump’s Twitter feed. So we have arrived at an astonishing historical moment. Republican attacks on the integrity of the FBI, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and former FBI director James B. Comey are not just a Twitter sideshow any more. Now they are being brought into the courtroom.
The episode illustrates a crucial point that has long been highlighted by those of us who study the breakdown of democracy and the growth of authoritarianism. When those with power begin to politicize the rule of law, they are staging an assault on one of democracy’s most fundamental institutions. And in this respect, the president of the United States has every right to declare “mission accomplished.”
On Tuesday, an NPR/PBS poll found that Mueller’s net favorability is plus 37 among Democrats but minus 33 among Republicans. And among Republicans, unfavorable views of Mueller have shot way up in just one month — from 30 percent in March to 49 percent in April, likely as a result of Trump’s public attacks on him.
According to the same poll, 55 percent of Republicans think the investigation is “unfair.” The numbers are a mirror image for Democrats, 73 percent of whom believe it is “fair.”
(The great irony, of course, is that every major figure involved in the investigation of Trump, his campaign and his disgraced former staffers is a registered Republican, someone appointed by a Republican, someone handpicked by Trump himself or, in some cases, all of the above).
But if Republican partisans across the country believe that Mueller’s report will be the product of a biased “witch hunt,” as the president loves to call it, then should we really expect Republicans to care what anyone outside their base thinks? It’s hard to think of another president who has consciously embraced polarization on quite the same scale as Trump. Gone is even a veneer of outreach to Democrats, who are instead routinely ridiculed on Trump’s Twitter feed and Fox News as weaklings who reserve their strongest loyalty for terrorists or illegal immigrants. Small wonder that this approach has solidified fierce opposition to the Trump administration among Democrats. Trump’s team has written them off and only cares about the people who already support him.
This, indeed, is precisely the point of the constant attacks on FBI, Mueller and Comey. There is a method to Trump’s madness. Mueller is leading a criminal investigation, meticulously adhering to the rule of law. Trump is treating it like a political attack. So he’s striking back the way he knows best: with ridiculous name-calling, whether by branding Comey a “liar,” a “leaker” or a “slime ball,” or by comparing the FBI to “Nazi Germany.” He has successfully planted the notion in the minds of his supporters that he is a victim of a system out to get him. And it’s working.
Mitch McConnell seemed to be the latest convert. Confirming speculation that some invertebrates can speak, he stated that he won’t bring legislation to the Senate floor to protect Mueller from being fired. “I don’t think the president’s going to [fire Mueller]. And just as a practical matter, even if we passed it, why would he sign it?” The answer is rooted in principle —- a concept that seems alien to Republican leadership these days. The answer, Senator McConnell, is that the rule of law requires no ambiguity: In democracies, leaders should not be able to fire those who are independently investigating them.
And if Trump wouldn’t sign it? Override the veto. Do your job.
Of course, McConnell has clearly decided that short-term political expediency overrides protecting the republic. And that’s why the Republican PR campaign against the forces of the rule of law is so dangerously effective. So long as Trump and the Republicans can poison the minds of their base into believing that the rule of law is actually a tool of the Democrats rather than a pillar of democracy, then they can just shrug when the almost certainly damning Mueller report comes out.
Yet we must not shrug off what is happening before our eyes. Disagreements over policy are part and parcel of democracy. Tax policy evolves. Immigration debates wax and wane. What Trump and his supporters are doing now is weakening a core principle of our system. The rule of law, once subverted, is hard to restore. We cannot allow it to crumble.