In February, with the shock of President Trump’s victory still fresh, a small group of libertarians and conservatives began meeting every two weeks to discuss their next moves.
Evan McMullin, the “Never Trump” presidential candidate, was in the room. So was Bill Kristol, co-founder of the Weekly Standard, who had drafted McMullin to run. The meeting grew to include conservative columnists like Mona Charen, Max Boot and John Ziegler, and former U.S. House members such as South Carolina’s Bob Inglis and Florida’s David Jolly.
On Wednesday, the Meeting of the Concerned will release its first public statement, asking congressional Republicans to preempt any presidential action against Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“We hereby call on House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to make clear, both publicly and privately, that they support the Mueller investigation and regard any interference with that investigation, including dismissal of the special counsel or preemptive pardons of investigation targets, as completely unacceptable,” write the members of the Meeting of the Concerned in the letter, which was provided to The Washington Post on Tuesday night. “We further urge all Republican members of Congress to issue public statements on these issues as well.”
The statement was a long time coming — a reflection of how the loose collection of conservatives opposed to Trump has struggled to find its place, as the Republican Party has consolidated its support for the president. The group has debated a statement of principles, which has grown to three pages, but is still unfinished.
In interviews, members of the Meeting of the Concerned said that the Mueller issue forced their hand. Several said that the influence of conservative media, especially the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, Wall Street Journal and New York Post, made them worry that the president would fire Mueller and spark a constitutional crisis. Charen pointed to a weekend of Wall Street Journal op-eds that laid out a case for ending the Russia probe, building on months of attacks on Mueller’s integrity.
“The infotainment side of the conservative media, they’ve been completely Trumpified for some time,” Charen said. “The Wall Street Journal was another story. That was surprising to me. I didn’t regard them as part of the Trump right. When they wrote an editorial suggesting that Mueller resign, I felt that needed a response.”
Mindy Finn, a Republican strategist who ran as McMullin’s vice presidential nominee last year, said that the Mueller issue had been floated at previous meetings, and the limp response of congressional Republicans — who have said, generally, that they do not expect Trump to fire Mueller — forced the conservatives’ hand.
“There’s a leadership vacuum,” Finn said. “Ideally we’d have more members of Congress standing up for the rule of law, being willing to challenge the president. Given that they’re not doing that, we felt that groups like this need to exist and need to speak out.”
Jerry Taylor, a co-founder of the libertarian Niskanen Center, said that Republicans “risked going into the history books as the party of treason” if they didn’t take action on Mueller.
“Some of us feel that impeachable offenses have already been committed, and some of us are not sure,” Taylor said. “It seems to be unanimous on Mueller, but there’s always some hazard in identifying yourself as part of the Republican resistance.”
The Meeting of the Concerned, which has grown all year but consists of just a few dozen people, meets during the work day and does not reveal its member list. Unanimity has been hard to find, even as some members, like Taylor, have become more vocal about the threat posed by the Trump administration.
“At some point, the Trump train’s going to come to a glorious wreck,” said Jolly, a two-term congressman and longtime Hill staffer who was narrowly defeated in 2016. “Who’s going to be there to pick up the pieces? I don’t think it’ll be the people who enabled him.”
Yet for much of 2017, the Meeting of the Concerned watched Trump loose his footing — and never fall. There have been discussions about endorsing candidates, or members of Congress who’ve resisted the president. To the group’s dismay, several of those members simply decided to retire, creating a potential 2018 election scenario where Trump allies hold on to power while Trump resisters are replaced by Democrats.
Members of the group also disagreed on how the Trump takeover of their party would end. Some thought he would drive the party to defeat. Others worried that he had molded the GOP into something electable in the near term — electable enough to stave off any debate about immigration or executive power.
“Donald Trump is reshaping the heart of the GOP into something that is very dark and very diseased,” said Inglis. “My nightmare scenario is a Republican Party that loses its soul. It’s one thing to lose an election. It’s another to lose your soul.”
The text of the letter is below:
We are a group of citizens united by our deep concern over threats to the integrity of American democracy and the rule of law. With the indictments announced on Monday, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference with the 2016 election is now entering a new and critical phase.
At the same time, a growing chorus of Republican and conservative voices has started calling for Mueller’s resignation on trumped-up grounds, a move that may be calculated to help justify dismissal of the special counsel and pardons for his targets.
In view of these events, we want to come forward and express our strong support for allowing the Mueller investigation to proceed without interference or obstruction. We would regard dismissal of the special counsel, or pardons issued preemptively to anyone targeted by his investigation, as a grave abuse of power that justifies initiation of impeachment proceedings.
We hereby call on House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to make clear, both publicly and privately, that they support the Mueller investigation and regard any interference with that investigation, including dismissal of the special counsel or preemptive pardons of investigation targets, as completely unacceptable.
We further urge all Republican members of Congress to issue public statements on these issues as well. It is morally imperative that the Republican Party and the conservative movement stand as bulwarks of the rule of law, not enablers of its erosion and violation. Now is the time for choosing.