Bill Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate majority leader and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
When I retired from the U.S. Senate in 2007 as its majority leader, my parting words were a prayer for my colleagues to rise above the passions of the moment and protect the institution as a bulwark for our country’s enduring values. The Senate I served in was not devoid of partisanship, nor should it be, but my hope was that patriotism would always take priority over party.
It is with some trepidation that I offer thoughts on how the good people still serving in the Senate should address a current crisis, but staying silent is no longer an option. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is under assault, and that is wrong. No matter who is in the White House, we Republicans must stand up for the sanctity of our democracy and the rule of law.
Certainly, my former colleagues face difficult pressures. They go to work in a Washington that is divided. They want to ensure a Supreme Court that, like most of our citizens, understands that government power must be limited. They want a fair tax code that supports a growing economy. They want less regulation. By those measures, President Trump is a great partner at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But we can’t look the other way as, tweet by tweet, with each new assault on the Justice Department’s independence, the bedrock principles of our party crumble.
I’m a Republican because I stand for small government and also, as a physician, for the dignity of every life. But I am also a Republican because I believe in the rule of law. Republicans must fight for that principle today — even if it means pushing back against a Republican administration. As a party, we can’t let the president or his allies erode the independence of the Justice Department or public trust in the vital work of law enforcement. That would be true even if the stakes were much lower, but it is overwhelmingly so when it comes to investigating foreign interference in our elections. Congress must ensure that Mueller is able to do his job without interference or intimidation.
Nobody knows what the special counsel’s investigation will conclude. I, for one, do not think the president colluded with Russian President Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election. But I do believe Putin purposely tried to undermine our democratic process.
It isn’t easy to tell a president of your own party that he is wrong. But the assault on Mueller’s investigation does not help the president or his party. When Trump talks about firing the special counsel or his power to pardon himself, he makes it seem as though he has something to hide. The president must remember that only Mueller’s exoneration can lift the cloud hanging over the White House.
The special counsel’s investigation is not about Trump. It is about our national security. Every American should be rooting for Mueller’s success in determining precisely how Russia interfered in our fundamental democratic process. I had no illusions about the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and I have none about Putin now. Mueller’s most recent court filings indicate that Putin is seeking to meddle in this year’s elections. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray — all Trump appointees confirmed by the Republican-led Senate — have also warned of foreign interference. We should heed these warnings and empower Mueller to see his important work through to its conclusion.
I have worried over the years about runaway legal authority, and I’ve battled against activist judges. I don’t worry about Robert Mueller. He is a lifelong Republican with a career of distinguished service running the Criminal Division of the Justice Department for President Ronald Reagan and serving as President George W. Bush’s FBI director, twice unanimously confirmed by the Senate. And his investigation is getting results: By any objective standard, he has moved swiftly, obtaining 23 indictments and five guilty pleas in just more than a year.
Congress must never abandon its role as an equal branch of government. In this moment, that means protecting Mueller’s investigation. We’re at our best as senators and Republicans when we defend our institutions. But more than that, it’s our best face as Americans.
People around the world admire not just the material well-being of the United States but our values, too. The rule of law is something many die trying to secure for their countries. We can’t afford to squander it at home.