Does Mueller even really matter?

Okay, sure he does.  Heck two posts in a row on it from me.  But, honestly, I’ve paid far less attention to his investigation than many and the reason is pretty simple– Mueller only matters if Democrats win the House in 2018.  At this point, that’s really the whole ball game in important ways.

Republicans have repeatedly and demonstrably shown that they will choose party over country; authoritarianism over the rule of law, in defense of Trump.  Thus, no matter what Mueller finds/reports, we can be quite confident Republicans won’t do a damn thing about it.  If Mueller is going to matter at all.  And if Trump is going to be accountable at all for his gross malfeasance, Democrats have to win the House.

Here’s Chait on Republicans’ embrace of Trump on the matter:

Whatever the Russia investigation finds, and whatever Trump does to quash it, or protect himself and his family, or pervert the FBI to rough up his political opponents, the dynamic that has protected him will remain in place. Trump will be popular among the Republican base. Republicans will need their base in order to hold Congress and protect their agenda. The alternative to Trump will always be a party that is left of center. Republicans may genuinely hope Trump does not fire Mueller. They may even wish that he would resign in favor of Mike Pence. But whatever he does, as long as he occupies the presidency, he will be their man.

So, you want Trump accountable?  Do what you can to get Democrats elected in 2018.

Trump and Mueller

Big noise of the last day is that Trump tried to fire Mueller but the White House counsel stopped him with the threat of resignation.  Lots of good takes.  Former deputy AG Harry Litman in NYT:

On the surface, the revelation is one more piece of damning evidence in the now-overwhelming case of obstruction of justice that Mr. Mueller has assembled. The core of the case — the Feb. 14 meeting in which Mr. Trump asked the director of the F.B.I., James Comey, to drop the investigation against the national security adviser, Michael Flynn; Mr. Trump’s subsequent sacking of Mr. Comey; and Mr. Trump’s serial lies about Mr. Comey’s firing — has long been solid. And Mr. Mueller has added significant pieces of circumstantial evidence, such as Mr. Trump’s apparent knowledge that Mr. Flynn had lied to the F.B.I. when he buttonholed Mr. Comey.

Thursday’s revelation seals the deal. The president’s attempted ouster of Mr. Mueller seems plainly to have been intended to squelch Mr. Mueller’s investigation. Moreover, Mr. Trump’s attempts to conceal the obvious with a rank, virtually comical explanation provide additional evidence of guilty intent. Mr. Mueller, the president argued, could not serve because, years before, he had resigned his membership at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia because of a dispute over fees; or he needed to be fired because he had worked at the law firm that previously represented Mr. Trump’s son-in law, Jared Kushner. Why strain to concoct such feeble rationales unless the truth is indefensible?

Post’s Aaron Blake:

Still, it’s worth emphasizing that this is not something Trump decided against; instead, it’s a reality he’s been forced into. And the only thing standing in the way of going nuclear and firing Mueller was the prospect of a staff defection that would make the already highly questionable decision — which even GOP senators warned against — look like even more of a PR nightmare. The reporting makes clear that Trump made this decision before it was rendered completely impractical by McGahn. Firing Mueller and then losing McGahn (and possibly Justice Department officials tasked with signing off on it) would have been viewed as pure desperation from a floundering White House.

And in that way, it follows the pattern of so many other attempts by Trump to manipulate law enforcement and those overseeing the Russia probe. He fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was overseeing the investigation at the time, only to have it lead to the appointment of Mueller. He clearly wants to be rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions — whose recusal from Russia-related matters paved the way for Mueller’s appointment — but firing Sessions would clearly be a disaster. He has tried to remove Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, only to be rebuffed by Comey’s replacement, Christopher A. Wray. There are a bunch more examples

The combination of that and Mueller’s attempted firing, plus everything else, looks like an attempt to install more sympathetic law enforcement officials and possibly even cover up something nefarious. At the very least, it betrays a concern about what these people might find or accuse you of.

And you know what else makes all of this look rather underhanded? The fact that Trump denied even considering firing Mueller.

Dave Leonhardt:

Unfortunately, other Republicans may soon find themselves facing the same decision as McGahn did. Trump has recently been offering conciliatory words about the investigation, but there is every reason to think he is afraid of it — and willing to do almost anything to obstruct it. Here’s hoping other Republicans show the same courage as McGahn.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine — even before the news of the June order broke — that Paul Ryan is actively helping Trump undermine the rule of law. [emphasis mine]

Hope springs eternal, but, at this point, there’s no reason to have any hope that Congressional Republicans have any courage whatsoever when it comes to Trump.


Our democracy may not be dying, but it’s at least been sent to the hospital

Listened to a terrific interview on Fresh Air last week with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of a new book, How Democracies Die.  Well worth listening to.  They’ve also got a nice summary of their key points in a TNR piece from December.  Among other things, what’s kind of amazing is that you can to a considerable degree pinpoint the decline of American democracy to Newt Gingrich.  Seriously.  Anyway, lots of good stuff in here:

If constitutional rules alone do not secure democracy, then what does? Much of the answer lies in the development of strong democratic norms. Two norms stand out: mutual toleration, or accepting one’s partisan rivals as legitimate (not treating them as dangerous enemies or traitors); and forbearance, or deploying one’s institutional prerogatives with restraint—in other words, not using the letter of the Constitution to undermine its spirit (what legal scholar Mark Tushnet calls “constitutional hardball”)…

In 1979, newly elected Congressman Newt Gingrich came to Washington with a blunter, more cutthroat vision of politics than Republicans were accustomed to. Backed by a small but growing group of loyalists, Gingrich launched an insurgency aimed at instilling a more “combative” approach in the party. Taking advantage of a new media technology, C-SPAN, Gingrich used hateful language, deliberately employing over-the-top rhetoric. He described Democrats in Congress as corrupt and sick. He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism. He even compared them to Mussolini and accused them of trying to destroy the country.

Through a new political advocacy group, GOPAC, Gingrich and his allies worked to diffuse these tactics across the party. GOPAC produced more than 2,000 training audiotapes, distributed each month to get the recruits of Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” on the same rhetorical page. Gingrich’s former press secretary Tony Blankley compared this tactic of audiotape distribution to one used by Ayatollah Khomeini on his route to power in Iran.

Though few realized it at the time, Gingrich and his allies were on the cusp of a new wave of polarization rooted in growing public discontent, particularly among the Republican base. Gingrich didn’t create this polarization, but he was one of the first Republicans to sense—and exploit—the shift in popular sentiment. And his leadership helped to establish “politics as warfare” as the GOP’s dominant strategy.

After the Republicans’ landslide 1994 election, the GOP began to seek victory by “any means necessary.” House Republicans refused to compromise, for example, in budget negotiations, leading to a five-day government shutdown in November 1995 and a 21-day shutdown a month later. This was a dangerous turn. As norms of forbearance weakened, checks and balances began to devolve into deadlock and dysfunction.

Hadn’t really heard about the principle of “forbearance” but it’s a really important idea and explored at length in the Fresh Air interview.  And Gingrich, sure as hell, began a path of undermining both mutual toleration and forbearance.  And, now, of course, we’re in Trump’s world:

If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country where candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of election fraud, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. It wouldn’t have been the United States of America.

But Democrats and Republicans have become much more than just two competing parties, sorted into liberal and conservative camps. Their voters are now deeply divided by race, religious belief, culture, and geography. Republican politicians from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump learned that in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful—and that the pursuit of politics as warfare can mobilize people who fear they have much to lose. War has its price, though. For now, the American political order and its institutions remain intact. But the mounting assault on the norms that sustain them should strike fear in anyone who hopes to see the United States secure a democratic future.

And Kristoff with a nice summary of key points:

It’s true that he [Trump] has tried to undermine institutions and referees of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors.

“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized. … Little actual backsliding occurred in 2017.”

That seems right to me: The system worked.

And yet.

For all my confidence that our institutions will trump Trump, the chipping away at the integrity of our institutions and norms does worry me. Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump (Newt Gingrich nudged it along in the 1990s), but Trump accelerated it.

It matters when Trump denounces the “deep state Justice Department,” calls Hillary Clinton a “criminal” and urges “jail” for Huma Abedin, denounces journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and promises to pay the legal fees of supporters who “beat the crap” out of protesters. With such bombast, Trump is beating the crap out of American norms.

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