The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump-inspired mess that could result from Robert Mueller finding Trump broke the law

For Democrats and those in the Never Trump movement, Robert S. Mueller III is the man who could bring down a presidency they hoped would never happen. Were the special counsel to find evidence of Trump's obstruction of justice or complicity in collusion with Russia, the logic goes, it would facilitate his downfall.

The last week should disabuse anybody of this assumption. Signs increasingly point to a large-scale attempt by some prominent voices to delegitimize Mueller before he is even able to draw final conclusions about Trump. The effort picks up on Trump's own concerted campaign to undermine the institutions of American government, and the combined result could be a mess the likes of which have rarely been seen in American politics.

After revelations last weekend that a lead FBI investigator in the Russia investigation, Peter Strzok, had been removed from the probe for sending anti-Trump text messages, the Wall Street Journal editorial board repeated its call for Mueller to step down from the investigation, saying he has a "credibility problem." The board made a similar call in late October, arguing that the investigation was premised on a dossier that the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee were revealed to have funded.

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro took things a few steps further this weekend, using her show to actually call on top law enforcement officials to be arrested. Pirro said the FBI and the Department of Justice both need to be "cleansed."

"It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in handcuffs," Pirro said. She explicitly called for the arrests of Strzok and Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and she seemed to suggest similar fates for Mueller, former FBI director James B. Comey and Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, for his handling of the dossier matter.

Pirro's stunning call for government officials to be jailed picks up on something fellow Trump defenders have been saying in an increasingly unified chorus. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has said: "Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt." Sean Hannity said the Mueller probe has put the country "on the brink of becoming a banana republic." And as Post columnist E.J. Dionne notes in his Monday column, last week's House hearing featuring FBI Director Christopher Wray was one long succession of GOP House members attacking and questioning the conduct of both Mueller and the FBI. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), picking up on the Strzok news and a long-running criticism of the political donations of Mueller's team, said that if the anti-Trump people were taken off his investigation, "I don’t know if there’d be anyone left.”

Feeding the beast over the last week-plus have been a series of reporting errors on major Russia-related stories, including ABC wrongly reporting that Trump as a candidate had told Michael Flynn to contact Russia — it turns out this happened much less incriminatingly during the Trump transition period, not the campaign — and a CNN report Friday that wrongly stated someone had reached out to Donald Trump Jr. with WikiLeaks documents before they were publicly available.

Trump planted this seed long ago with his warnings about the "deep state" and his efforts to call into question the legitimacy of institutions such as the judiciary, the intelligence community and the mainstream media. And all of this is fertilizer for that seed.

However you feel about any one of these arguments, they're all building an unmistakable narrative into which Republicans and GOP lawmakers are increasingly buying. A Quinnipiac poll last week showed just 25 percent of Republicans agree with the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and just 10 percent say the campaign coordinated with Russia. Fully 83 percent say it did not.

Plenty have noted that the GOP base stood by Richard Nixon even through the worst of Watergate. As FiveThirtyEight has written, that's true of lots of other White House scandals, too. When you layer on top of that the fact that a GOP-controlled Congress will be the ultimate arbiter of all of this through the impeachment process, the increasing partisanship and tribalism of American politics, Trump's stubbornness, and Trump's ability to successfully sow conspiracy theories with the GOP base — it's what his political career was built upon — it suggests that nothing about an adverse Mueller conclusion will lead to any easy or swift resolutions.

In fact, it seems much more likely to lead to a huge amount of political and societal unrest, all stoked by Trump and those who have been convinced from Day One that the deep state is out to get him. And that likelihood is only growing every day we see voices like Pirro's saying what she did.