Saturday Night Massacre, The Sequel
It could be any day now. For the first time in his Presidency, Donald Trump has indicated publically an openness to firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Last Wednesday, the White House took it a step farther, affirming repeatedly that the President believes he has the power to fire Mueller himself, bypassing the general understanding that President Trump would have to order deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to do so.
Mr. Trump and his legal team are likely incorrect; there is legal precedent spanning from 2010 to 1839 which negates such a notion, including a Supreme Court case stating that only the heads of departments appointed and fired inferior officials, and that “the president certainly has no power to remove [them].” Though it is worth noting that Rosenstein did not appoint Mueller under the Nixon restriction on direct firing without cause, utilizing instead a statute authorizing deputy attorneys general to appoint special lawyers for specific investigation. Nevertheless, given enough rage and misjudgment—the former of which Mr. Trump achieved on Monday with the raid of his personal lawyer’s office and home, and the latter of which the President has seldom done without—it does not seem beyond the scope of possibility that the President would at least try to fire Mr. Mueller.
Perhaps some people believed the President when he triumphantly declared “I am the law and order candidate” in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, but anyone paying attention for the last 15 months can plainly see that the President does not believe the rule of law when it applies to himself. President Nixon also campaigned on “law and order,” a dog whistle slogan that seized upon white discontent in the early 70s, only to fire multiple top DOJ officials for refusing to dismiss Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Facing certain impeachment, Nixon would resign a few months later.
The sequel to the Saturday Night Massacre might soon be upon us: Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein could be on the chopping block. But it is worth noting that the President’s efforts to undercut the Department of Justice began long ago. In January of 2017, President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce a travel ban policy she believed to be illegal. In a shocking decision that rattled the nation, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May of that year, citing legitimate concerns from a Rosenstein-written memo questioning Comey’s conduct during the Clinton email investigation. Only a few days later, however, President Trump admitted to Lester Holt that ‘this Russia thing’ was on his mind at the time of the firing. Trump passed on Robert Mueller when interviewing new potential FBI directors, so Rosenstein hired him the next day as Special Counsel for matters related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Since that moment in May of 2017, President Trump has relentlessly insulted and attacked Robert Mueller, once-Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, and even his own attorney general Jeff Sessions. His pressure has caused multiple threatened resignations and departures, including that of Trump appointee Rachel Brand, and even after McCabe stepped down as acting director earlier this year, Trump ordered him fired just days before he would achieve his pension. And, of course, there are the tweets.
Though many of his supporters delight in their unfiltered audacity, President Trump’s tweets have repeatedly indicated a troubling willingness to attack federal justice officials he believes are not acting in his interests. Below are just a few of his outbursts:
more tweets can be found here, at the Trump Twitter Archive
Imagine if Obama had attacked the FBI in such a public and humiliating manner during the Clinton email investigation. Would Republicans be as silent as they are now, or would they be on every morning show in the country bashing the president for not respecting the rule of law and "the brave men and women of the FBI."
Trump's partisan disease has infected the Republican party, and though some GOP senators have indicated support for the integrity of the Mueller investigation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated explicitly that a bill designed to protect Special Counsell Robert Mueller in the event of his firing will not even reach the Senate floor. The House GOP has strayed predictably farther: on Wednesday, nearly a dozen Republican members of Congress sent a criminal referral to the Department of Justice and the FBI seeking an investigation of Andrew McCabe, James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and Loretta Lynch for their actions during the 2016 investigation of Clinton's email misconduct. Apparently, these lackeys are concerned with Comey's "lack of candor with the Congress," and in light of the multiple indictments already levied in the Mueller probe, they worry that Comey's "lack of candor" is being treated with "dissimilar degrees of zealousness" compared to bank fraud, collusion, and election interference.
Mr. Trump, it appears, is now getting support from members of Congress in his furious campaign to discredit top law enforcement officials and shunt attention towards Secretary Clinton, despite having beaten her in a campaign approaching two years finished. But that support is enabling a dangerous behavioral pattern which is doing damage every time it manifests. Every iota of validation Trump receives, every time a lawmaker support his crazed attacks, he gets one step closer to finish off his Saturday Night Massacre—one step closer to a constitutional crisis that will shake the nation.
We have got to ask ourselves if we are responsible—are we expected to concern ourselves with collusion and obstructionism and cronyism and hyperpartisanship, even if we think our immediate lives won't change too much regardless of the outcome? Yes, the supermarket will still be open if Trump fires Mueller, yes, rec leagues will still hold games, and yes, unless you're a top Justice Department official you will probably go to work the next day. But it becomes clearer every day that this Congress isn't willing to draw a red line for the President—the ones who might lose their district over it are retiring, and the others don't think their electorate will care enough for them to lose.
We must care, in every part of the country, no matter our political background. Nobody in this country is above the law, not even the chief executive. Robert Mueller has thus far been conducting a thorough and serious investigation into Russian interference, charging numerous Russians and Americans with bank fraud, hiding and moving money illegally, and identity theft. There is no evidence to suggest any of these charges are partisan or unsubstantiated. He has, however, charged numerous Trump advisors as well and referred information to a separate investigation of potentially illegal campaign payments by Trump's lawyer, so it makes sense that Trump would be worried. But does that mean that because he is the President Mueller should stop?
In the words of ex-President Richard Nixon: "people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook."
If the President is innocent, then he should be confident the Special Counsel will find nothing. But, while that investigation is going on, we, as Americans committed to accountability and justice, must let our representatives know that we care—we care that the investigation, if conducted fairly, be allowed to finish, regardless of its outcome. Our elected officials are beholden to us, the government serves us. Trump is not immune to anything, especially not justice. Our government officials might be willing to grant him that, but we must not be, and demand that they not be either. We cannot afford another Saturday Night Massacre—the damage might not seem immediate, but if the President is allowed to skirt justice once, we are wholly responsible for every subsequent instance in which he does.