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The question that matters now: what will Republicans do when Trump fires Mueller?

Probably nothing. But they should prove me wrong.

FBI Director Mueller Testifies Before Senate Judiciary Committee Alex Wong/Getty Images

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, was indicted back in October, but the most important Trump/Russia story of the fall was a Brooke Singman Fox News piece titled “Mueller facing new Republican pressure to resign in Russia probe.”

The journalism in the story is laughable, but the message is clear and important: When Trump decides to fire Mueller (and possibly pardon the targets of his investigation) to spare himself and his family from accusations of serious wrongdoing, America’s premier propaganda broadcaster will have his back.

That means that, inevitably, the vast majority of rank-and-file congressional Republicans will also have his back. Which means that, inevitably, the GOP congressional leadership will have his back. Republicans who attempt to stand up for the rule of law will be putting their careers at risk, which presumably is why virtually all of them have been willing to overlook so many subventions of the rule of law already.

The fate of the investigation — and of the integrity of the American political process — will thus rest on the often-frail shoulders of the handful of congressional Republicans who’ve made it clear that they understand the threat Trump poses to the country but have never yet managed to conduct effective, coordinated political action to counter the threat. If they want to forestall disaster, that needs to change. And it needs to happen fast, before Trump plunges us into a new round of crisis.

The threat of a Mueller firing is very real

Official Washington has been in a state of denial about the odds that Mueller will end up being fired for a long time now. The predicates, however, are clearly set.

That started with Trump firing FBI Director James Comey, lying about why he fired Comey, admitting on national television that the real reason was to try to impede an ongoing criminal investigation into his associates, and then largely getting away with it. I fully understand why Republicans didn’t impeach him and remove him from office then and there. But if firing the FBI director to impede an ongoing criminal investigation into your associates isn’t a grave abuse of power, then I don’t know what is.

But over the weekend, Fox’s Jeanine Pirro called on Congress to “shut it down,” “turn the tables,” and “lock her up.”

And that now is increasingly what Fox News is calling for. Or rather, given the close and intimate relationship between the propaganda broadcaster and the White House, what they are laying the groundwork for.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have been doing their part in this — from stymying efforts to investigate the Trump-Russia matter to just last week ginning up new Hillary Clinton investigations. Most Republican senators have been considerably more dignified and circumspect, but when the White House decides to pull the trigger of the gun that Fox and the House have delivered to them, they’ll be under intense pressure to help drive the getaway car.

Congressional Republicans have brought this crisis upon us

Right up until Election Day 2016, the vast majority of congressional Republicans took an appropriately skeptical view of Donald Trump. Huge swaths of them said that they wouldn’t vote for him as president. House Speaker Paul Ryan said that he wouldn’t campaign with him or defend his conduct. Of course, most of them endorsed Trump over Hillary Clinton, but even among those who did, there was a clear sense that they regarded him as an unusually poor choice for the Republican Party.

The appropriate reaction to his unexpected victory would have been to subject his early actions to an unusually high level of scrutiny. Republicans instead did the reverse:

  • They greenlit a number of woefully unqualified Cabinet nominees, including Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Steve Mnuchin.
  • They sat idly by as the administration made clear its intent to completely disregard the spirit and purpose of American conflict-of-interest law.
  • They overlooked material factual misstatements under oath from a number of nominees, including disgraced now-former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
  • They allowed the president to install unqualified family members at the heart of the West Wing operation and turned a blind eye to serious misconduct on their part.
  • They watched Trump break all normal procedures to pardon Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for refusing to comply with valid court orders and said and did nothing.

The fundamental calculus is that as long as Trump agrees to defer to GOP congressional leaders on matters of substantive public policy, rank-and-file members should treat efforts to hold him accountable for misconduct — rather than the underlying misconduct itself — as a distraction from their important policy agenda. It’s a cynical calculus that will someday lead to their own destruction. (Trump knows the difference between an opportunistic collaborator and a true toady and will dispense with the former when he can.) But they are right to think it may let them cut taxes for rich people.

Besides, it turns out that when it comes to casting aside the rule of law and the constitutional order for the sake of business-friendly policy, it gets easier over time. The Trump campaign produced a lot of angst and agita in the hearts of congressional Republicans, but far-right Alabama Senator-elect Roy Moore is getting largely unquestioned backing.

Given their past behavior, Republicans can’t really expect Trump to sit idly by and let a rigorous investigation go forward. They know that if he fires Mueller, most of them will react by trying to lay low until the storm passes, plugging away at tax cuts and deregulation before working together hand in hand to try to win in 2018 and stave off the Democratic House majority that could bring real accountability and oversight to the table. It would only take a small minority of decent Republicans to stop the slide, but to be effective, they need to show more coordination and savvy than they’ve shown thus far.

Preemptive action will be most effective

Sens. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain have all voiced clear concerns about the impact of the Trump administration on the long-term health of American democracy. Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who unlike those three are planning to run for reelection, have both shown clear comfort outlining political personae that are distinct from the national party. Sen. Lindsey Graham really fits neither of those buckets, but earlier personally averred that firing Mueller would be a disaster.

Three or five or six senators isn’t a lot.

But it is enough to take a stand and forestall disaster. To be effective, they need to work together and be clear — sooner rather than later — that there will be negative consequences if Trump tries to spike the investigation.

Firing Mueller will, of course, kick Democrats into impeachment overdrive. But there’s no hope a GOP-led House will take up impeachment, or that a GOP-led Senate would find 67 votes to remove. If anything, Republicans will find that impeachment fever is a fun way to make Joe Manchin and other Democratic senators running for reelection in deep-red states squirm.

But if three or four Republican senators were to say loudly and clearly that firing Mueller would induce them to hold up significant aspects of the GOP legislative agenda until the investigation can be restored, that would make all the difference in the world. Critically, it’s important to say that before Trump actually fires Mueller. If statements come while Mueller is still in his job, that gives the business community, the GOP leadership, and other critical actors reason to lean on Trump to not fire Mueller — since firing Mueller would throw a wrench in the works of the legislative agenda.

By contrast, if Mueller’s firing is already fait accompli by the time Trump-skeptical Republicans try to mobilize against it, they’re the ones who’ll be leaned on to not make trouble.

Over the past two years, the intraparty GOP opposition to Trump has been marked by a total lack of ability to engage in coordinated or effective action. I’m profoundly skeptical that will change, now or ever. But I don’t doubt that there are a bunch of Republicans on Capitol Hill who sincerely hope Mueller won’t get fired. If they want to prevent that, now’s the time to stop hoping and start actually doing something.

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