A president with no concern for veracity or consistency has assured us he is not considering the firing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. This does not make the prospect even marginally less remote. And it has done little to inhibit the attempt by some conservatives to discredit the investigation.
On a move against Mueller and his office, the wind is thick with straws. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, warns: "We do not know the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller's team." Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) urges Mueller "to clean house of partisans" and wonders if the special counsel's final report will be legitimate. The Murdoch press — led in silly shrillness by Fox News personalities — continues to trash the reputation of Mueller and his associates.
At one level, this is "whataboutism" run amok. What about Bill and Hillary Clinton? Didn't they ruthlessly discredit Ken Starr and his investigation? Why should Republicans hobble themselves with scruples?
But here is a difference. Bill Clinton and his defenders were accusing an investigator of being a power-mad prig. Some of Trump's defenders are claiming, in effect, that the FBI is engaged in a "coup d'etat" (the words of Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz) — a politically motivated attempt to reverse the results of the 2016 election. Their evidence? That some senior investigators donated to Democrats, supported Hillary Clinton and called Trump an "idiot."
If that last charge were considered a disqualification, we would have the political equivalent of the Rapture (including, apparently, some of the Cabinet). But the larger point is this: Trump Republicans are willing to smear a man of genuine integrity, and undermine confidence in federal law enforcement, for reasons they must know are thin to the point of transparency. This is beyond cynicism. It is institutional arson. This is the profoundly anti-conservative strategy of Trump supporters against any institution (the courts, the media, law enforcement) that exposes the administration's deception and corruption: Burn, baby, burn.
Because Mueller is inexorable, the desperation in Trump world is palpable. We know that senior officials in the Trump campaign wanted to collude with the Russians in order to influence the election. (Donald Trump Jr. has admitted meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton.) We know that Russian intelligence had the means to influence the election, hacked from a variety of sources. We know that Trump officials tried to conceal their contacts with the Russians, while seeking policy changes favorable to Russian interests. We know (on the credible testimony of a former FBI director) that President Trump tried to shut the investigation of these matters down. And it is a good bet that Mueller knows far more about all of this than we do.
As the investigation seems to be closing in on members of the Trump family, the president has a variety of options, all with serious risks. He might be able (it is debated among legal scholars) to fire Mueller directly. But unless he also abolishes the special counsel's office, FBI officials would continue to investigate any crimes they have discovered. Other precedent would require Trump first to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein (to whom Mueller reports), then (probably after a cascade of Justice Department resignations) find a stooge willing to fire Mueller. This would be a direct assault on the autonomy and integrity of the FBI, which still has defenders on Capitol Hill.
Or Trump could do a preemptive pardon of individuals being investigated. This would look deeply corrupt — like an admission of guilt written in neon — and there are serious legal issues surrounding a presidential self-pardon. This option would put the tolerance of Hill Republicans for executive lawlessness to the test. Is there any limit to their capacity for servility? The frog is in the pot, and it nears a boil.
If Trump takes any of these aggressive actions, it will define his presidency, exaggerate social division and throw American public life into chaos. At that point, he will deserve impeachment, whether he is impeached or not. (That will be determined not by the degree of the offenses but by which party controls the House of Representatives.)
Behind all this is a nagging fear. Other presidents would be restrained by the prospect of social division and political chaos. For Trump, these may be incentives. He seems to thrive in bedlam. But the anarchy that sustains him damages the institutions around him — a cost for which he cares nothing.