When Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.) took to the floor of the Senate on Wednesday afternoon to warn against what he called “troubling signs” that President Donald Trump would fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Democrats and liberals cheered. They’ve been angered by criticisms coming from some conservatives in the House of Representatives and the media as well, as some mutterings from White House figures about signs of bias in Mueller’s probe tasked with getting to the bottom of allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Warner’s talk about Mueller’s possible firing being a “red line” made it clear that Democrats intended to make the president pay a high price for removing a potent legal threat to his continued tenure in office.
But the problem with Warner’s impassioned address and all the head nodding it inspired among his fellow Democrats is that there is no sign that Trump intends to fire Mueller. That’s a point the White House has repeatedly made and one that even Trump explicitly made this week when he said flatly, “No, I’m not firing Mueller.” But not even that was enough to prevent Warner from his diatribe about what it would mean if Trump did what he had just said he wouldn’t do. Nor was Warner alone, as liberal pundits have been flying to the special counsel’s defense with such headlines as the Washington Post’s “The growing specter of Robert Mueller’s firing” on Thursday.
The pro-Mueller offensive is rooted in the assumption that conservatives are engaged in a “fake news” campaign aimed at destroying Mueller’s credibility so as to ease Trump’s way toward firing him or to undermine faith in the conclusions of his investigation if it is allowed to continue.
Let’s concede that Trump might change his mind, and that his anger about the special counsel’s work and the entire effort to portray his presidential campaign as the work of Russian intelligence is not exactly a secret. But after several months of grousing about Mueller, the signals from the White House have made it clear the administration knows that it is in Trump’s best interest to cooperate with him and to just wait for the investigation to finish rather than provide the Left with another pretext for talk about impeachment.
So what’s really driving the drumbeat of liberal rhetoric about Mueller being fired?
The answer has to do not so much with the distrust the Left has about Trump’s intentions as with the yawning divide between liberals and conservatives in a battle over the legitimacy of the Trump presidency — a battle in which there is little middle ground left. It’s not just that liberals don’t believe conservatives have a case when they raise objections to the political affiliations of those working with Mueller; it’s also that the specific narrative they are trying to establish about Trump rests on assumptions that require them to believe he is the second coming of Richard Nixon.
Perhaps Warner actually believes that Trump is planning his own version of a “Saturday Night Massacre” — Nixon’s 1973 firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and of an attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing to carry out his order. But the need to recast Trump as Nixon goes deeper than any fears for Mueller. It’s part of a set of assumptions about the charges of Russian collusion in which Trump is considered guilty until proven innocent. More than that, it holds that any questions about the probity of the investigation are not only invalid but also part of a plot to undermine the rule of law and the Constitution. This mindset justifies talk of Trump’s impeachment.
It was an interesting coincidence that the same day that Warner claimed that Trump was attacking the rule of law, Democrats picked a new ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. The winner of a spirited contest was Representative Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), and the questions posed to him, both before and after his victory, rested on one subject: impeachment. If Democrats win back the House in 2018, that will mean Nadler will preside over impeachment proceedings against Trump. While he said that such talk was premature and that any bill of impeachment must have bipartisan support, the fact that his party is already intent on pushing for Trump’s removal from office as soon as they have the power to act on that desire is abundantly clear. Indeed, the reason Democrats are so intent on promoting talk of a Nixon-like “massacre” and to treat criticism of Mueller as an inherent threat to democracy is that impeachment is never far from their minds these days.
But the problem with their arguments rests on what Mueller has and hasn’t done.
Judgments about the merits of Mueller’s investigation will have to wait until he’s finished. But there is nothing untoward about noting the disproportionate number of people attached to his probe who have strong ties to the Democratic party. Nor is a discussion of anti-Trump bias among investigators — including a text about an “insurance policy” in case he was elected — a sign of a Republican coup.
After all, when Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment, Democrats didn’t merely stoop to defending his misbehavior and lying under oath. They also worked hard to discredit special prosecutor Ken Starr, and their successful appeal to the public’s sense of fairness was the undoing of the push for impeachment. Like Mueller, Starr gave his critics plenty of ammunition, but those who did blast him for his zeal to hound Clinton out of office were not accused of attacking democracy when they questioned his impartiality or judgment.
Moreover, unlike the bulletproof case that was being amassed by Cox at the time of his dismissal, and Starr’s situation in which he did have the goods on Clinton with respect to perjury, there is still no sign that Mueller has any proof that Trump violated any laws. But the willingness of Warner and those echoing his charges in the mainstream media to jump to the conclusion that Trump is actively plotting to quash any effort to hold him accountable rests on the assumption that he is guilty of collusion with the Russians even though there is, as of yet, little reason, other than their partisan bias, to think this is true.
There is still no sign that Mueller has any proof that Trump violated any laws.
Those already convinced of Trump’s guilt are no more interested in hearing about possible bias on the part of Mueller’s team than are Trump supporters in any proof of wrongdoing they might find. But those hyping this argument into a faux constitutional crisis aren’t so much defending the rule of law as they are preparing the ground for impeachment regardless of what Mueller can prove. Unless and until they can point to more than their instinct that Trump must be guilty of something worth chucking him out of office for, attempts like those of Warner to silence Mueller’s critics must be considered partisan maneuvering in advance of an inevitable push for impeachment if Democrats win the House in 2018.