From Lindsey Graham on the right to Bernie Sanders on the left, a fair number of elected officials say that if Donald Trump fires Robert Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel, he’ll face impeachment. Don’t count on it.
Despite plans by MoveOn.org and others to organize nationwide protests if Mueller’s investigation is shut down, and despite the outcry from Democrats and the media that would certainly follow, odds are that Trump would survive the aftermath of a Saturday Night Massacre–style removal of the special counsel.
That’s because the country has become increasingly polarized since Mueller took office last May, with more and more Democrats saying they back Mueller’s inquiry—and more and more Republicans saying they don’t. In the House of Representatives, where Republicans face stiff odds of hanging on to power, my guess is that Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders won’t risk a break with Trump if he fires Mueller, and that they won’t allow an impeachment vote (and even if they did allow a vote and Trump was impeached, it’s highly doubtful that Trump opponents could muster the two-thirds majority needed for conviction in the Senate).
The polls on Mueller are not encouraging. Consider the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which showed a deep Democrat/Republican split on attitudes toward the Mueller investigation. In March 2018, 47 percent of Democrats viewed Mueller positively, against only 9 percent who viewed him negatively. However, among Republicans, the split was dramatically different: 11 percent positive, 33 percent negative. What’s most troubling is that, over time, those numbers have migrated sharply, becoming increasingly polarized. Back in June 2017, just 35 percent of Democrats viewed Mueller in a positive light, against 9 percent who viewed him negatively; among the GOP, the split was almost even, with 15 percent positive and 14 percent negative. (The rest expressed no opinion.) In other words, over time, Democrats have become increasingly supportive of Mueller, while Republicans have massively turned against him.
Similarly, a host of recent polling shows that while Americans are far more likely to believe the FBI over Trump, and that a majority of Americans believes that Mueller’s investigation is fair and impartial, the results are strongly skewed on a partisan basis. In fact, a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in early February found that nearly three-quarters of Republicans believe that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.” Those results follow a months-long campaign by the White House and pro-Trump, right-wing media to attack Mueller, the FBI, the Justice Department, and the US intelligence community.
So, imagine you’re a Republican House member seeking reelection in November. If Trump were to fire Mueller, or otherwise act to shut down or hamstring his inquiry, what would you do? Would you risk alienating the militant, pro-Trump base of your party—a base that has become increasingly powerful in GOP primaries as a result of gerrymandering—by calling for Trump’s impeachment? Or would you issue a mealy-mouthed statement saying you would have preferred that Mueller be allowed to conclude his investigation, at the end of which (you’d argue) he’d probably exonerate the president, and then hope that you can survive what’s looking to be a pro-Democratic election wave in November?
The clearest indication of where House Republicans stand on Russiagate came earlier this month, when the Republican majority on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued its “Final Findings and Recommendations” and then officially shut down the HPSCI’s investigation of Russia’s 2016 election interference. While concluding that Moscow “conducted cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions in 2015-2016,” that “Russian state actors” leaked stolen information, and that “Russian intelligence leveraged social media” during the election, the HPSCI Republicans gave Trump complete absolution, declaring there was no evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia. They then closed the books. And none of the House GOP leaders, including Speaker Ryan, criticized them for it. It was, indeed, the House equivalent of firing Mueller.
To be sure, it’s a Hobson’s choice for Republican elected officials. Were they to side with Mueller over Trump, they’d risk alienating a vast swath of GOP voters, who are daily worked into a lather by Fox News and talk-radio over what Joe diGenova described in January as a “brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime.” (DiGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing, were recently hired and then quickly un-hired to be part of Trump’s disintegrating legal team. Trump’s lead attorney for Russiagate, John Dowd, abruptly quit, days after saying that he was praying that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “bring an end to alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by…[former FBI Director] James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt dossier.”) For those GOP representatives seeking reelection, their most pragmatic calculation would likely be to stick with Trump and hope to ride out the storm in the general election.
On the other hand, GOP representatives who calculate that they would do better by condemning Trump, calling for his impeachment, and trying to appeal to independents and “Reagan Democrats” for reelection would be committing political suicide. In 2018, Democrats appear to be getting ready for a massive anti-Trump insurgency, and they’re not likely to look with favor on turncoat Republicans who choose, at the last minute, to break with the president. Plus, Republicans who abandon Trump will almost certainly face a pro-Trump Republican primary challenger or write-in opponent in the general election.
Of course, those same choices face Republicans if Mueller is allowed to complete his investigation. If Mueller finishes his work this year, and if he ends up indicting higher-ups in Trump’s circle, perhaps including son-in-law Jared Kushner, and if he finds concrete evidence that members of the Trump campaign, or even the president himself, colluded with the Russian hack-and-leak campaign and the parallel social-media blitz by the Russians, well, the Republicans in Congress will face the same Hobson’s choice: Do they side with Mueller? Or with Trump? They could be faced with this dilemma just months or weeks before Election Day.