President Trump is now ready, willing and able to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller. It's a matter of when, not if. The warning signs have been accumulating since Trump decided not to fire Mueller last summer, and now alarm bells are ringing.
New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait says Mueller’s investigation is in "mortal danger." E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post says the campaign to fire Mueller is pushing us "closer to the precipice" of lawlessness.
And the Republicans who once said firing Mueller was unthinkable or sure to lead to impeachment have fallen silent. Indeed, Trump critics on the right who might have spoken in Mueller’s defense have signaled their allegiance to the president, not the law. Last week, the editors of the Wall Street Journal said Mueller has a "credibility problem" and should resign.
Trump talked about firing Mueller as early as last June, according to Newsmax publisher Christopher Ruddy, but he didn’t have any idea how to do it. Trump was blocked, not by considerations of morality or politics, but by a parliamentary maneuver quietly approved by Mitch McConnell.
McConnell’s move was not an expression of support for Mueller personally, or for an independent Russia investigation generally. It was merely a tactical maneuver designed to protect McConnell’s legislative agenda (repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes for the rich) from getting swamped by Trumpian chaos.
At that time, Trump and adviser Steve Bannon recognized the president did not have political muscle among Republicans to kill off the Russia investigation. Since then, they have devised a comprehensive plan to overwhelm the objections of establishment Republicans like McConnell and conservative allies like Ruddy.
That campaign has six phases, four of which have been implemented.
Phase 1: Trash Mueller’s reputation among Republicans
As a registered Republican appointed to head the FBI by a Republican president, Mueller once enjoyed a reservoir of respect among Republicans. When Mueller was appointed special prosecutor in May, Newt Gingrich called him a "superb choice."
So smearing Mueller’s good name became the first goal. By early August, Gingrich dutifully said Muller embodied the "deep state at its worst."
Phase 2: Unify Republican media around scandals about Hillary Clinton
After his return to Breitbart News, Bannon revived the Uranium One story first floated by Peter Schweizer in his 2015 book, "Clinton Cash." Schweizer alleged that Clinton played a "central role" in approving the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with mining rights in the United States, to Russian’s nuclear energy agency.
Fox News joined the effort. From mid-October to early November, Fox News devoted an extraordinary 12 hours of news coverage to this recycled story in just three weeks. Tucker Carlson said it was “insane” that Clinton had "given away" 20 percent of America’s uranium supplies. He suggested Clinton did so because Russians and people linked to the deal had given money to the Clinton Foundation.
The only problem, as Fox News’ Shepard Smith pointed out, is there was no evidence that Hillary Clinton had actually intervened, to facilitate the tale. And the Russian atomic energy agency did not obtain any uranium from the deal because it does not have the license necessary to import American uranium.
The conservative media also played up the Clinton campaign’s role in funding the production of a salacious dossier about Trump, which was prepared by a former British spy who got information from Russian sources.
With these stories in wide circulation, Trump had a Russia defense that didn’t involve any facts about his Russian dealings, only the story of a unified party under siege from partisan liberals.
Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?),....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
By the end of October, only 38 percent of Republicans approved of Mueller’s investigation.
Phase 3: Link the Clinton scandals to Mueller and export the story to more mainstream news outlets
Once the talking points about Muller’s reputation and Clinton’s scandals were engrained in the conservative news cycle, they were then linked in the new narrative that Mueller is a Clinton partisan.
This strategy of mass distraction relieved Republicans of the difficult job of explaining away the accumulating evidence of undisclosed contacts between the Trump entourage and Russian agents during the election campaign. It gave them something else to talk about.
Trump’s defenders on the congressional intelligence committees called on Mueller to investigate Uranium One. If he didn’t, he must be protecting Clinton.
If Mueller investigated the allegations in the Steele dossier, then he was doing Clinton’s work.
If Mueller’s team included a lawyer who gave money to Obama in 2008, then his whole team was motivated by partisanship.
And if Mueller took steps to protect his investigation, his integrity could be used to undermine him. When it was revealed that Mueller had removed an FBI agent, Peter Strzok, from his investigation, after finding out that Strzok and a colleague had exchanged messages that could be interpreted as pro-Hillary Clinton, it wasn’t a good-faith effort to eliminate the appearance of bias; it was proof, as Sean Hannity put it, that Mueller and company are a "partisan, extremely biased, hyperpartisan attack team."
Now Trump’s partisans can criticize Mueller for being unfair and they don’t even have to talk about firing him.
In USA Today, James Robbins says Mueller should suspend his investigation. In The Hill, former Bush speechwriter Ned Ryun calls for “complete transparency” about the Clinton scandals as a way of achieving truth, without the need for a special prosecutor. “Trump can let Americans make up their own minds, know the truth, and move on to better things to do with their lives,” he writes.
That's the script for firing Mueller.
Phase 4: Establish the expectation that the Russian investigation will be wrapped up soon
“It is my hope and expectation that shortly after Thanksgiving, all the White House interviews will be concluded,” White House counsel Ty Cobb told CNN. The Washington Post reports he’s telling West Wing staffers that the investigation overall will soon conclude, exonerating President Trump.
Since no one familiar with Mueller or the complexity of the Russia investigation shares this fantasy, the Atlantic’s David Graham was puzzled. “Where does he get his optimistic take, and could he be right?” he asked.
As liberals ponder Trump’s veracity — and miss the point — the president continues to repeat this deliberately false talking point to establish the perception that the Mueller investigation is coming to an end. The president thinks his involvement in the investigation "will be wrapped up pretty soon," reliable mouthpiece Chris Ruddy said last week.
So when the Russian investigation doesn’t end by the New Year — and it won’t — Trump can argue the special investigator is on a fishing expedition that has gone on too long.
Phase 5: Wait for a moment of strength
Trump can’t risk a political firestorm right now. He’s the least popular American president in a century. Four of his aides have been indicted, and he has no legislative accomplishments to speak of. His best hope is the Republicans’ regressive tax plan, which has to be rewritten by a conference committee. With major differences between House and Senate versions still outstanding, any controversy over Mueller could prevent Trump from gaining his first major legislative victory.
But if the tax cut is signed this month, as Republicans hope, Trump can claim a victory and he’ll have the muscle to move on Mueller.
Phase 6: Find a Justice Department official willing to fire Mueller
By law, a president can’t fire a special prosecutor. Only the Attorney General can do that. Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation so the job would fall to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In his confirmation hearings, Rosenstein made clear he would not obey an order to fire Mueller without "good cause." Nothing Mueller has done so far comes close to meeting that standard.
So Trump will have to fire Rosenstein. The department’s third-ranking official, Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand, whom Trump appointed last May, would face the decision whether to obey Trump’s order. As I pointed out last June, Brand is a foot soldier in the conservative counterrevolution.
Given a choice between protecting Mueller, a nonpartisan career civil servant, and protecting Trump, a conservative president in danger of impeachment, I don’t think Brand will hesitate. She’s been training her whole professional life to do the ideologically correct thing. She (or someone other a Trump appointee) will fire Mueller. Congressional Republicans will not defend him. And the president will rule beyond the rule of the law.