Why Are Republican Senators Trying to Protect Mueller?

Sometimes ulterior motives aren’t that hard to figure out. In the case of former FBI Director Robert Mueller, appointed last May as independent special counsel by the Justice Department to probe alleged Russian government meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the end game has become clear: Impeach President Donald Trump. Much of the focus now is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, determined to give Mueller and his staff a vote of confidence. “It would be suicide” for Trump to fire Mueller, noted Sen. Grassley, who, despite objections from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, seeks a committee vote this week on a bill to protect Mueller’s job. Actually, it might be suicidal for Trump not to fire Mueller.

The accusations that certain unnamed Russian officials conspired with Trump and his top campaign aides to steal the 2016 election isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s the way Trump’s enemies like it. Last Friday, the Democratic National Committee sued the campaign and several aides in Manhattan federal court. That’s also the intent of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who isn’t as objective as his public utterances would suggest. Of his team of 13 prosecutors, all are Democrats. And he reportedly has subpoenaed records of the Trump Organization, an almost sure sign that he intends to dig into the personal finances of President Trump and his family.

Mueller has a not-so-secret partner in this endeavor in former FBI Director (and Mueller’s successor), James Comey, fired by President Trump last May. Comey has released a new autobiography, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, which, in the current context, suggests the author wants to be known as an ethical titan. Comey believes that he is saving the nation from darkness by allowing President Trump to remain in the White House. In a recent interview with ABC-TV’s 20/20, he called Trump “morally unfit” to hold public office. Yet Comey appears to have credibility issues of his own. The president’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, last June announced that he has strong evidence that Comey had leaked “privileged communications” and may have committed perjury in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Lawmakers are enabling this effort. The normally sensible Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is promoting a bill (actually two bills merged into one) that would give special prosecutor Mueller free reign. The measure would place under judicial review any White House decision to fire the special counsel, a virtual invitation to a constitutional crisis. Grassley believes that President Trump can pull through by lying low. “The less the president says on this whole thing, the better off he would be, the stronger his presidency would be,” Grassley told the Fox Business Network. “I think that maybe Mueller coming to a dead end as far as collusion of Trump with Russia in this election – and it looks like a dead end – maybe Mueller would appreciate being fired so he would have an excuse for getting out of it, and the Democrats would have a good issue in the upcoming election.” He added: “It would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller.” And this: “It’s not about Trump.”

Other committee members also want to keep presidential objections out of the picture. Fellow Republican Thom Tillis (North Carolina) puts it this way: “If we go down and pass it out of the committee and we make a lot of political theater, it’s going to go nowhere. And shame on everybody who wants to make a point and not make a difference.” Another Republican, Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), is no ally of President Trump either. Back in July 2015, he called candidate Donald Trump a “jackass” in an interview on CNN. More recently, he was a character witness in the corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J., which ended in a hung jury last November. Speaking of Democratic senators from New Jersey, Cory Booker, co-sponsor of the Judiciary Committee bill, has announced that he would vote against the president’s nominee for secretary of state, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, for reasons that have nothing to do with qualifications to hold the office.

The conventional wisdom, at least, is that President Trump would jeopardize his presidency by firing Robert Mueller. Yet might not the opposite be true? Could it be that inviting a showdown with Mueller would strengthen Trump? Consider:

First, as head of the executive branch, Trump has the authority to fire any subordinate – like Mueller. Moreover, under Justice Department rules, a special counsel can only be fired “by personal action of the attorney general” for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.” The call, then, is in the hands of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself last March), who appointed Mueller last May 17. It is not in the hands of Congress. To argue otherwise, as has Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is to make a mockery of the Constitution’s separation of powers.

Second, Trump may have an unexpected ally in former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, fired in March by Sessions less than two days before his scheduled retirement. Last week the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General recommended McCabe for prosecution related to his alleged leaking of classified information to the Wall Street Journal and lying about it afterward to his erstwhile boss, James Comey. McCabe may despise Trump, but if he is prosecuted, he would have every incentive to share sworn testimony and documents implicating Comey in various misstatements. According to an unnamed source, Comey, while as FBI director, pushed for the prosecution that ended McCabe’s career.

Third, if anyone was deep in Russian election meddling, it was Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. Last Wednesday, 11 members of Congress made a criminal referral to the Justice Department alleging that top members of the FBI used a fake dossier on Trump compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, who happened to be on the payroll of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. These lawmakers also noted that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other persons had threatened an FBI informant who provided information about the Russian nuclear industry and the Obama administration’s approval back in 2010 to sell about 20 percent of America’s uranium assets to Russia. This “Uranium One” deal was approved by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not long after her husband, former President Bill Clinton, received $500,000 for a speech he gave in Moscow and after several persons with a stake in the deal donated a combined $140 million to the Clinton Foundation.

President Trump is not one to be mum. He has called Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt” and a “disgraceful situation.” He is not likely to throw people overboard to save his skin from Mueller and compliant legislators. He knows that silence merely would buy some extra time before the axe falls on him.

Politics, as the axiom goes, is the art of compromise. But Trump must hold firm here even if it means firing Mueller. If he avoids the spotlight, a constitutional crisis will happen anyway. Being “nice” won’t work. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was “nice” in March 2017 when he recused himself from the Mueller probe, only to see it expand. If the Democrats gain congressional majorities in this fall’s midterm elections – a distinct possibility given the recent wave of early GOP retirements – impeachment may be inevitable. Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans seem to be oblivious to how Washington politics is played.