Soon, according to a June report in The Washington Post, the moment of truth will arrive. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the president, his administration, and his campaign, will deliver his verdict on whether Donald Trump obstructed justice.
On the larger and more complicated question of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, Mueller may take longer to issue a second report. But it is widely expected in Washington—which has been wrong about such matters before—that a first report, on obstruction, will drop before Labor Day. Assuming it happens, it will follow shortly after Mueller’s July 13 indictment of twelve Russian military intelligence officers. Those indictments have to do with the larger collusion story, and they suggest that more indictments might well be on the way. Even as Trump gave Putin the benefit of the doubt in Helsinki, a Russian woman, Maria Butina, was charged with trying to illegally influence the 2016 election.
It seems inconceivable that Mueller will absolve the president in that first report. Trump has obstructed justice right in front of our noses, and more than once, either because he doesn’t know what obstruction of justice is or because he knows and doesn’t care. The most notable instance was his interview with Lester Holt of NBC in May 2017, right after he fired FBI Director James Comey. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had prepared a letter laying out the president’s reasons for the dismissal. The reasons included, rather laughably, the charge that Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton in his handling of the probe of her State Department e-mails. Holt asked Trump about the reasons stated in the letter, and eventually Trump acknowledged that they hadn’t a thing to do with it:
I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.
That is obviously Trump saying, as directly as Trump can say anything, that he fired Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s possible Russia ties. But it’s hardly the only example we know of. Two months before that, in March 2017, he’d berated Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a meeting about Sessions’s earlier decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe and urged him to reverse course. He also made requests to both Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency director Michael Rogers to issue statements proclaiming that there was no collusion (both refused). There is more along these lines. Arguably every single tweet the president writes about the investigation, attacking Mueller’s “13 Angry Democrats” and denouncing it as an invariably upper-cased Witch Hunt, is an attempt to obstruct justice; if you don’t think so, get yourself placed under federal investigation and try mimicking Trump’s Twitter habits and see what happens to you.
All of this doesn’t begin to detail what Mueller and his team have learned from interviews about what took place in private. It’s a reasonable bet, then, that Mueller will find that Trump and others around him—former press aide Hope Hicks, possibly his son Donald Jr., maybe Jared Kushner, other campaign associates and hangers-on—have lied or tried to quash or in some way compromise the investigation.
If that happens, what comes next? Three days before Trump’s inauguration, the neoconservative Bush administration official Eliot A. Cohen wrote that “this will be a slogging match until the end.” He felt confident, however, that “the institutions will contain him and the laws will restrain him if enough people care about both, and do not yield to fear of him and whatever leverage he tries to exert from his mighty office.”
Of those forty-five words of Cohen’s, the most important is “if.” When Cohen wrote his piece, there may have been reason for optimists to hope that the Republicans who control Congress and the conservative jurists who constitute the majority on the Supreme Court, as well as rank-and-file Republicans, would tire of this vulgar burlesque and would find ways to check Trump, to communicate to him that even a president can’t just do whatever he wants.
But what has actually happened over the last year and a half has been the opposite. Two Republican legislators who have criticized him in a way that bared any teeth, Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, are giving up the fight and retiring, while much of the congressional GOP is instead laying the groundwork for an all-out assault on Mueller when a report hits. The Supreme Court, which will presumably soon have two Trump appointees, is far more political and less independent than the Supreme Court that in 1974 ordered Richard Nixon to hand over his tapes. Trump’s base, as long as he is deporting asylum-seekers and inveighing against knee-taking football players and fake news journalists, grows more and more besotted. And undergirding it all is the Fox News Channel, now a pure propaganda network, from which Republicans take their cues and get their talking points. What will they do when Mueller’s first allegations appear?
It’s worth stepping back here to review quickly the steps by which the Republican Party became this stewpot of sycophants, courtesans, and obscurantists. It’s easy to forget these things, but it’s not as if Trump announced his candidacy in mid-2015 and all this self-abasement suddenly happened. In a May 2015 Washington Post–ABC poll, his favorable-to-unfavorable numbers among Republicans were 23 to 65 percent. Then he announced his candidacy in mid-June, warning us about those Mexican rapists. By mid-July, another Washington Post–ABC News poll gave Trump a 57 percent favorable rating among Republicans, with 40 percent seeing him unfavorably—a big improvement, but still far from Dear Leader territory.
That August brought the first Republican debate, at which Megyn Kelly confronted Trump over his “disparaging comments about women’s looks.” The day after that debate, Trump said that Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” The war that resulted between Trump and Fox News foreshadowed his subsequent takeover of the Republican Party as a whole.
Trump had known Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity for years, and occasionally appeared on Fox to natter on about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Now, however, he grandly announced a boycott of the network and put out a flurry of tweets like this one, which reads strangely (except for the grammatical error) in light of all we know today: “.@oreillyfactor was very negative to me in refusing to to [sic] post the great polls that came out today including NBC. @FoxNews not good for me!” Who knows the extent to which this was all show. Murdoch and Ailes no doubt felt that they had to at least appear to be defending Kelly, their top female star at the time, who has since decamped to NBC (this was months before Ailes was exposed as a serial sexual predator).
It now seems as if what we were witnessing then was really a cautious waltz of alpha-male lions loosed upon an unfamiliar savannah, fighting to determine which one would lead the pride. And Trump clearly won. I’m not sure this qualifies as something for which he deserves credit, but it’s a fact that Trump is the only Republican politician I can think of since the network has been on the air (1996) to take it on and bend it to his will rather than the other way around.
As Trump began piling up primary victories, Republicans started coming around. Some stopped short of endorsing him, but they found ways to signal that they would do nothing to stop him. In late April 2016, Tennessee’s Bob Corker announced his support for Trump. The day before, Trump had given a foreign policy address that Corker praised as “challenging the foreign policy establishment that has been here for so long.” That June, when Trump delivered a racist tirade against the judge (of Mexican heritage) who was presiding over the Trump University case, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.” But for most Republicans—very much including Graham himself, who just three months into Trump’s term announced himself “the happiest dude in America right now” over the administration’s anti-Iran saber-rattling—that time never came.
The release of the Access Hollywood tape in early October 2016 provided another look-in-the-mirror moment for Republicans. More than forty elected Republicans did back away from Trump at that point—a significant number, no doubt, but still a small minority. Big donors like Robert and Rebekah Mercer announced they were sticking with him. The Never-Trumpers, which at the time included those forty, along with a number of conservative writers and intellectuals and conservative TV pundits, stood their ground, but they were overwhelmed and warned by their constituents that they had better fall into line: Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone, Julian Assange, and Fox News were now fully in charge of the Republican Party.
None of this was inevitable. I used to argue, in these pages and elsewhere, that the Republicans could have stopped Trump, and I still believe it. Doing so would have required three elements: a bit of leadership from Reince Priebus, then the party chairman and later the easily steamrolled White House chief of staff; an agreement (this was the hard part) among the other major presidential candidates to check their egos and coalesce behind one of them; and a commitment by a few major donors to support that candidate.
But they didn’t do this, and no one stood up to Trump. His only forceful critic was Mitt Romney, who called him “a phony, a fraud” in a scathing speech; but he delivered that speech in March 2016, two days after Trump had swept the Super Tuesday voting, i.e., after he was already well on his way to the nomination. The time for that speech was before the Iowa caucuses. Today, Romney, running for the Senate in Utah, cheerily predicts that Trump will “be reelected solidly.” This is at least the fourth political incarnation of Romney, from the moderate who gave Massachusetts a health care plan in the early 2000s to the “severe” conservative who ran for president in 2012 to the anti-Trump spokesman of two years ago to the capitulator of today.
This is the remarkable thing we have witnessed: the Republican Party has essentially ceased to be a political party in our normal understanding of the term and has instead become an instrument of one man’s will. Fifty years ago, the GOP was an amalgam of different factions that often disagreed among themselves—New England liberals, the heirs of the “Free Soil” moderates, prairie conservatives, Wall Street money people. Then in 1980, the new “movement conservatives” gained the upper hand. Incrementally, they took over. Incrementally, they moved ever more rightward, egged on by the new right-wing media.
All that was bad enough for the country—it led us to a war waged under false pretenses against an “enemy” that hadn’t attacked us and a campaign to dismantle a social compact carved out over the course of a century. But at least through all those phases, the Republican Party remained committed to the basic idea of democratic allocation of power. Since the Civil War, Democrats and Republicans have fought sometimes fiercely over their ideological goals, but they always respected the idea of limits on their power.
No one had come along to suggest that power should be unlimited. But now someone has, and we have learned something very interesting, and alarming, about these “conservatives,” both the rank and file and holders of high office: their overwhelming commitment is not to democratic allocation of power, but to their ideological goals—the annihilation of liberalism, the restoration of a white ethno-nationalist hegemony. They know better than to speak of such things openly, but every once in a while they have allowed a piece of the cat’s anatomy to slip out of the bag, a tail here, a hind leg there. In June 2016, for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said:
For all of his obvious shortcomings, Donald Trump is certainly a different direction, and I think if he is in the White House he’ll have to respond to the right-of-center world which elected him, and the things that we believe in. So I’m comfortable supporting him.
In other words, to McConnell, that “right-of-center world” predated Trump, and on most important questions—taxes, deregulation, cultural issues, and the judges who have the power to nullify so many liberal achievements—Trump would do just what McConnell wanted a Republican president to do.
It has often been written, and I’ve written it myself, that the Republicans have been weak in the face of Trumpism. But I’ve come to think that’s wrong. They’re not weak at all. Most of them are perfectly happy to have become Trump’s vassals. They were waiting for just such a man.
Trump’s popularity among Republicans now stands at close to 90 percent. This is a fairly recent development—since the early part of this year. No doubt it is a function in part of certain accomplishments, notably the tax cut and the reshaping of the courts. But I think it’s tied most directly to the increasing awareness of what a serious threat Mueller poses to the president. Hence the ferocious pushback, orchestrated by Fox. Most nights, if I’m watching Rachel Maddow at 9 PM on MSNBC, I’ll flip over for a few moments to watch Hannity on Fox. If you don’t do this, I recommend that you do. It’s like being transported to a parallel universe. Hours continue to be devoted to why Hillary belongs in jail. The Mueller probe is discussed only for the purpose of telling viewers how corrupt it is.
A quick timeline will help us to understand how and when the Republican campaign against Mueller grew. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017. On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel. The very next month, Trump ordered the firing of Mueller (something he could not directly do; he could fire Rosenstein and replace him with a lackey who would then fire Mueller). But the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, said he would resign if Trump ordered such moves. Trump backed off.
That wasn’t known publicly until The New York Times broke the story early this year, but even so, rumors of a firing circulated widely last summer—widely enough that many Republican senators warned of grave consequences for the president if he did so. Two bills to protect Mueller, actually bipartisan, were written and introduced by early August 2017. It seemed then at least that some Republicans understood their constitutional responsibility.
Trump ordered that firing after The Washington Post revealed that Mueller had expanded the probe from collusion with Russia to possible obstruction of justice by Trump. Also after that, Newt Gingrich opened up a line of attack that quickly became familiar. Mueller, he tweeted, is “the ti[p [sic] of the deep state spear aimed at destroying or at a minimum undermining and crippling the Trump presidency.” Three minutes later he tweeted, “The brazen redefinition of Mueller’s task tells you how arrogant the deep state is and how confident it is it can get away with anything.” I’m not 100 percent sure Gingrich—who didn’t think it particularly brazen when Ken Starr expanded his probe from Whitewater to Bill Clinton’s sex life—was the first to use the phrase “deep state” in the United States (it originated in Turkey in the 1990s to describe the links between the government, the police, and the criminal underworld). But that is exactly the sort of boundary-pushing that has been his tactic for forty years now—he once blamed a mother’s drowning of her two young sons on liberals and the Democratic Party. In any event, to the right, it’s all been a hoax, a charade, and a deep-state conspiracy ever since.
The right-wing media’s uber-villain of the hour is Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who, in the course of investigating the Clinton e-mail matter in 2016, wrote some certainly ill-advised text messages to an FBI attorney, Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, calling Trump an “idiot,” an “enormous douche,” and a “fucking idiot,” and expressing grave alarm at the prospect of a Trump presidency. A report issued this June by the Justice Department’s inspector general was highly critical of Strzok and unearthed one new exchange between him and Page, in which she pleads with him in 2016 to reassure her that Trump will never be president, and he replies, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
Mueller learned of these e-mails last July and dismissed Strzok immediately (the messages’ contents weren’t publicly known until early this year), and the IG report did not conclude that Strzok’s bias affected the outcome of the Clinton investigation. But those texts are manna from heaven to Republicans in Congress. Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, who was a cofounder of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, has been an especially ferocious attack dog on Trump’s behalf, browbeating witnesses who meekly rebut his conspiratorial premises.
Strzok testified once to the House Judiciary Committee, in private, in late June. On July 12 he testified publicly, and defiantly, before a joint meeting of two House committees. He insisted that his personal beliefs “at no time” interfered with his decision-making and that attacks on him and the FBI were “deeply destructive.” He was hounded by South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy repeatedly over the text messages. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, at one point threatened him with criminal contempt for refusing to answer questions about the Mueller investigation that he is ethically obligated not to answer.
In response, Strzok did what too few people do—he stood up to his questioners and embarrassed them:
I think it’s important when you look at those texts that you understand the context in which they were made and the things that were going on across America. In terms of…“We will stop it”…it was in response to a series of events that included then candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero. And my presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting behavior, that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States.
I’m not sure what the Republicans can do to Strzok from here, but it seems unlikely that he will be permitted to serve out his career in peace (he was transferred to human resources).
Beyond Strzok, another Trump–GOP talking point revolves around those thirteen angry Democrats mentioned so frequently by Trump and Giuliani, at least before Giuliani suddenly disappeared from public view. Mueller made public the names and identities of seventeen lawyers he had hired, and researchers found that thirteen were registered Democrats. Five had made donations to Clinton (two large, three small). It’s a complaint that in fairness one could imagine either party lodging. At the same time, it’s worth noting that it’s a violation of Justice Department rules, under which a special counsel operates, for Mueller to ask the political affiliations of people he hires. And Mueller is himself a Republican, but that is dismissed now, because in the Fox version of events he has capitulated to the deep-staters.
Thus has the table been set for full-blown legislative assault on Mueller if and when he delivers a damning report. Its extent will depend on the nature of the charges. If they’re explosive enough, perhaps some Republicans will be checked. But right now, no Republican seems interested in defending Mueller. Those two Senate bills died. Last fall, their Democratic sponsors, Chris Coons and Cory Booker, thought they were making progress in negotiations with their GOP counterparts, Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis, until they walked away. It wouldn’t have mattered in any case, as McConnell made it clear the bills wouldn’t get to the floor.
And what will Trump do, in the event of such a report? Deny everything, of course, and fight any attempt at sanctioning him, even if Congress attempts to levy one (if, that is, the Democrats recapture the House). And that’s when Eliot Cohen’s slogging match will really begin.
It is possible that Mueller will issue a report so damning and so ironclad that Republicans will have no realistic choice but to abandon Trump. But that seems very unlikely. The party as a whole—and let us not fail to mention Ronna Romney McDaniel, current chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, niece of Mitt, and as slavish a Trumper as exists—has spent a year and a half rehearsing for the big moment.
Past practice suggests all too clearly what will happen. Some of the more senior and respected Republicans, the Lindsey Grahams and Orrin Hatches, will hop onto the Sunday shows to express their “grave concern” or some such as they did after the Helsinki conference. A few will be one or two careful ticks more forceful—young Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, say, who has a history of writing tweets and Facebook posts that denounce Trump (and then doing nothing else). These reproaches will generate a round of respectful headlines in places like Politico, enough to convince a few of the first-tier talking heads that these men (and possibly some women; Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski springs to mind) are serious, that this will finally be the moment they will do the honorable thing. And then they’ll return to their pro-Trump states and districts, lie low for a few days, and come back to Washington hoping they can quietly let the whole thing drop.
Other Republicans, of course, will serve as Fox News’s legislative flacks and unload on Mueller. This will include Gowdy, although he is retiring; Jordan, assuming he is not felled in the meantime by a scandal engulfing him on the question of whether he knew, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, that a team doctor was taking sexual liberties with the young athletes; Arkansas senator Tom Cotton; California congressman Devin Nunes, who has used the House Intelligence Committee to promote blatantly false pro-Trump narratives; and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, who last November introduced a resolution calling on Mueller to resign and has in the short months since become Trump’s most comically reliable groveler.
The bulk of the rest of them will swim with the tide. The one who might be worth watching is North Carolina senator Richard Burr. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr has at least led an investigation that was not dedicated solely to the enterprise of cherry-picking evidence that would exculpate the president, as Nunes has. A Burr committee report issued in early July backed up the findings of US intelligence agencies that Russia did meddle in the election to benefit Trump. Burr said during a successful 2016 run that he would not seek reelection. If that is still his thinking, he may feel free to speak frankly.
It’s doubtful he would influence many of his colleagues, though. Most feel no pressure to denounce Trump. But, after a year and a half of this, we may fairly conclude that it’s worse than that. They have no wish to denounce Trump. He does things they disagree with sometimes. There’s the family separation policy, which one suspects they’d have been fine with if the polls weren’t so overwhelmingly bad. And there’s the matter of tariffs, on which most Republicans do genuinely disagree, and which could produce real tension later on. But in the meantime, all evidence tells us that the Republican Party is delighted with Trump, as we will see in the upcoming hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Barring a bolt of unexpected lightning, Kavanaugh will win confirmation. Eventually, the question of whether this president (or any president) can face legal punishment while in office will make its way to the Court. We will see then whether the tumor that afflicts the legislative branch has also consumed the judicial. In 1974 no one had to worry seriously that the Supreme Court would issue a “political” decision on such a matter, and indeed the Court ruled 8–0 that Richard Nixon was not above the law (Nixon appointee William Rehnquist recused himself because he had worked in the administration, but Lewis Powell, Nixon’s other appointee, ruled with the majority). We can permit ourselves no such sanguinity now. The conservative movement is a few Supreme Court decisions away from having unlimited power, and one sees no Cincinnatus among them.
—July 19, 2018