Michael To­masky

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael To­masky

Hail to the Chief

Soon, ac­cord­ing to a June re­port in The Wash­ing­ton Post, the mo­ment of truth will ar­rive. Robert Mueller, the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pres­i­dent, his ad­min­is­tra­tion, and his cam­paign, will de­liver his verdict on whether Donald Trump ob­structed jus­tice.

On the larger and more com­pli­cated ques­tion of his cam­paign’s pos­si­ble col­lu­sion with Rus­sia, Mueller may take longer to is­sue a sec­ond re­port. But it is widely ex­pected in Wash­ing­ton—which has been wrong about such mat­ters be­fore—that a first re­port, on ob­struc­tion, will drop be­fore La­bor Day. As­sum­ing it hap­pens, it will fol­low shortly af­ter Mueller’s July 13 in­dict­ment of twelve Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers. Those in­dict­ments have to do with the larger col­lu­sion story, and they sug­gest that more in­dict­ments might well be on the way. Even as Trump gave Putin the ben­e­fit of the doubt in Helsinki, a Rus­sian woman, Maria Butina, was charged with try­ing to il­le­gally in­flu­ence the 2016 elec­tion. It seems in­con­ceiv­able that Mueller will ab­solve the pres­i­dent in that first re­port. Trump has ob­structed jus­tice right in front of our noses, and more than once, ei­ther be­cause he doesn’t know what ob­struc­tion of jus­tice is or be­cause he knows and doesn’t care. The most no­table in­stance was his in­ter­view with Lester Holt of NBC in May 2017, right af­ter he fired FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey. Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein had pre­pared a let­ter lay­ing out the pres­i­dent’s rea­sons for the dis­missal. The rea­sons in­cluded, rather laugh­ably, the charge that Comey was un­fair to Hil­lary Clin­ton in his han­dling of the probe of her State Depart­ment e-mails. Holt asked Trump about the rea­sons stated in the let­ter, and even­tu­ally Trump ac­knowl­edged that they hadn’t a thing to do with it:

I was go­ing to fire Comey know­ing there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I de­cided to just do it, I said to my­self, I said, you know, this Rus­sia thing with Trump and Rus­sia is a made-up story.

That is ob­vi­ously Trump say­ing, as di­rectly as Trump can say any­thing, that he fired Comey be­cause of the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his cam­paign’s pos­si­ble Rus­sia ties. But it’s hardly the only ex­am­ple we know of. Two months be­fore that, in March 2017, he’d be­rated At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions in a meet­ing about Ses­sions’s ear­lier de­ci­sion to re­cuse him­self from the Rus­sia probe and urged him to re­verse course. He also made re­quests to both Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Dan Coats and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency di­rec­tor Michael Rogers to is­sue state­ments pro­claim­ing that there was no col­lu­sion (both re­fused). There is more along these lines. Ar­guably ev­ery sin­gle tweet the pres­i­dent writes about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, at­tack­ing Mueller’s “13 An­gry Democrats” and de­nounc­ing it as an in­vari­ably up­per-cased Witch Hunt, is an at­tempt to ob­struct jus­tice; if you don’t think so, get your­self placed un­der fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion and try mim­ick­ing Trump’s Twit­ter habits and see what hap­pens to you.

All of this doesn’t be­gin to de­tail what Mueller and his team have learned from in­ter­views about what took place in pri­vate. It’s a rea­son­able bet, then, that Mueller will find that Trump and others around him—for­mer press aide Hope Hicks, pos­si­bly his son Donald Jr., maybe Jared Kush­ner, other cam­paign as­so­ciates and hang­ers-on—have lied or tried to quash or in some way com­pro­mise the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

If that hap­pens, what comes next? Three days be­fore Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, the neo­con­ser­va­tive Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial Eliot A. Co­hen wrote that “this will be a slog­ging match un­til the end.” He felt con­fi­dent, how­ever, that “the in­sti­tu­tions will con­tain him and the laws will re­strain him if enough peo­ple care about both, and do not yield to fear of him and what­ever lever­age he tries to ex­ert from his mighty of­fice.”

Of those forty-five words of Co­hen’s, the most im­por­tant is “if.” When Co­hen wrote his piece, there may have been rea­son for op­ti­mists to hope that the Repub­li­cans who con­trol Congress and the con­ser­va­tive ju­rists who con­sti­tute the ma­jor­ity on the Supreme Court, as well as rank-and-file Repub­li­cans, would tire of this vul­gar bur­lesque and would find ways to check Trump, to com­mu­ni­cate to him that even a pres­i­dent can’t just do what­ever he wants.

But what has ac­tu­ally hap­pened over the last year and a half has been the op­po­site. Two Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors who have crit­i­cized him in a way that bared any teeth, Se­na­tors Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, are giv­ing up the fight and re­tir­ing, while much of the con­gres­sional GOP is in­stead lay­ing the ground­work for an all-out as­sault on Mueller when a re­port hits. The Supreme Court, which will pre­sum­ably soon have two Trump ap­pointees, is far more po­lit­i­cal and less in­de­pen­dent than the Supreme Court that in 1974 or­dered Richard Nixon to hand over his tapes. Trump’s base, as long as he is de­port­ing asy­lum-seek­ers and in­veigh­ing against knee-tak­ing foot­ball play­ers and fake news jour­nal­ists, grows more and more be­sot­ted. And un­der­gird­ing it all is the Fox News Chan­nel, now a pure pro­pa­ganda net­work, from which Repub­li­cans take their cues and get their talk­ing points. What will they do when Mueller’s first al­le­ga­tions ap­pear?

It’s worth step­ping back here to re­view quickly the steps by which the Repub­li­can Party be­came this stew­pot of syco­phants, cour­te­sans, and ob­scu­ran­tists. It’s easy to for­get these things, but it’s not as if Trump an­nounced his can­di­dacy in mid-2015 and all this self-abase­ment sud­denly hap­pened. In a May 2015 Wash­ing­ton Post–ABC poll, his fa­vor­able-to-un­fa­vor­able num­bers among Repub­li­cans were 23 to 65 per­cent. Then he an­nounced his can­di­dacy in mid-June, warn­ing us about those Mex­i­can rapists. By mid-July, an­other Wash­ing­ton Post–ABC News poll gave Trump a 57 per­cent fa­vor­able rat­ing among Repub­li­cans, with 40 per­cent see­ing him un­fa­vor­ably—a big im­prove­ment, but still far from Dear Leader ter­ri­tory.

That Au­gust brought the first Repub­li­can de­bate, at which Megyn Kelly con­fronted Trump over his “dis­parag­ing com­ments about women’s looks.” The day af­ter that de­bate, Trump said that Kelly had “blood com­ing out of her eyes, blood com­ing out of her wher­ever.” The war that re­sulted be­tween Trump and Fox News fore­shad­owed his sub­se­quent takeover of the Repub­li­can Party as a whole.

Trump had known Ru­pert Mur­doch, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Han­nity for years, and oc­ca­sion­ally ap­peared on Fox to nat­ter on about Barack Obama’s birth cer­tifi­cate. Now, how­ever, he grandly an­nounced a boy­cott of the net­work and put out a flurry of tweets like this one, which reads strangely (ex­cept for the gram­mat­i­cal er­ror) in light of all we know to­day: “.@or­eil­ly­fac­tor was very neg­a­tive to me in re­fus­ing to to [sic] post the great polls that came out to­day in­clud­ing NBC. @FoxNews not good for me!” Who knows the ex­tent to which this was all show. Mur­doch and Ailes no doubt felt that they had to at least ap­pear to be de­fend­ing Kelly, their top fe­male star at the time, who has since de­camped to NBC (this was months be­fore Ailes was ex­posed as a se­rial sex­ual preda­tor).

It now seems as if what we were wit­ness­ing then was re­ally a cau­tious waltz of al­pha-male lions loosed upon an un­fa­mil­iar sa­van­nah, fight­ing to de­ter­mine which one would lead the pride. And Trump clearly won. I’m not sure this qual­i­fies as some­thing for which he de­serves credit, but it’s a fact that Trump is the only Repub­li­can politi­cian I can think of since the net­work has been on the air (1996) to take it on and bend it to his will rather than the other way around.

As Trump be­gan pil­ing up pri­mary vic­to­ries, Repub­li­cans started com­ing around. Some stopped short of en­dors­ing him, but they found ways to sig­nal that they would do noth­ing to stop him. In late April 2016, Ten­nessee’s Bob Corker an­nounced his sup­port for Trump. The day be­fore, Trump had given a for­eign pol­icy ad­dress that Corker praised as “chal­leng­ing the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment that has been here for so long.” That June, when Trump de­liv­ered a racist tirade against the judge (of Mex­i­can her­itage) who was pre­sid­ing over the Trump Uni­ver­sity case, Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham said, “There’ll come a time when the love of coun­try will trump ha­tred of Hil­lary.” But for most Repub­li­cans—very much in­clud­ing Gra­ham him­self, who just three months into Trump’s term an­nounced him­self “the hap­pi­est dude in Amer­ica right now” over the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s anti-Iran saber-rat­tling—that time never came.

The re­lease of the Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood tape in early Oc­to­ber 2016 pro­vided an­other look-inthe-mir­ror mo­ment for Repub­li­cans. More than forty elected Repub­li­cans did back away from Trump at that point—a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber, no doubt, but still a small mi­nor­ity. Big donors like Robert and Re­bekah Mercer an­nounced they were stick­ing with him. The Never-Trumpers, which at the time in­cluded those forty, along with a num­ber of con­ser­va­tive writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als and con­ser­va­tive TV pun­dits, stood their ground, but they were over­whelmed and warned by their con­stituents that they had bet­ter fall into line: Trump, Rudy Gi­u­liani, Roger Stone, Ju­lian As­sange, and Fox News were now fully in charge of the Repub­li­can Party.

None of this was in­evitable. I used to ar­gue, in these pages and else­where, that the Repub­li­cans could have stopped Trump, and I still be­lieve it. Do­ing so would have re­quired three el­e­ments: a bit of lead­er­ship from Reince Priebus, then the party chair­man and later the eas­ily steam­rolled White House chief of staff; an agree­ment (this was the hard part) among the other ma­jor pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to check their egos and co­a­lesce be­hind one of them; and a com­mit­ment by a few ma­jor donors to sup­port that can­di­date.

But they didn’t do this, and no one stood up to Trump. His only force­ful critic was Mitt Rom­ney, who called him “a phony, a fraud” in a scathing

speech; but he de­liv­ered that speech in March 2016, two days af­ter Trump had swept the Su­per Tues­day vot­ing, i.e., af­ter he was al­ready well on his way to the nom­i­na­tion. The time for that speech was be­fore the Iowa cau­cuses. To­day, Rom­ney, run­ning for the Se­nate in Utah, cheer­ily pre­dicts that Trump will “be re­elected solidly.” This is at least the fourth po­lit­i­cal in­car­na­tion of Rom­ney, from the mod­er­ate who gave Mas­sachusetts a health care plan in the early 2000s to the “se­vere” con­ser­va­tive who ran for pres­i­dent in 2012 to the anti-Trump spokesman of two years ago to the ca­pit­u­la­tor of to­day.

This is the re­mark­able thing we have wit­nessed: the Repub­li­can Party has es­sen­tially ceased to be a po­lit­i­cal party in our nor­mal un­der­stand­ing of the term and has in­stead be­come an in­stru­ment of one man’s will. Fifty years ago, the GOP was an amal­gam of dif­fer­ent fac­tions that of­ten dis­agreed among them­selves— New Eng­land lib­er­als, the heirs of the “Free Soil” mod­er­ates, prairie con­ser­va­tives, Wall Street money peo­ple. Then in 1980, the new “move­ment con­ser­va­tives” gained the up­per hand. In­cre­men­tally, they took over. In­cre­men­tally, they moved ever more right­ward, egged on by the new right-wing me­dia. All that was bad enough for the coun­try—it led us to a war waged un­der false pre­tenses against an “en­emy” that hadn’t at­tacked us and a cam­paign to dis­man­tle a so­cial com­pact carved out over the course of a cen­tury. But at least through all those phases, the Repub­li­can Party re­mained com­mit­ted to the ba­sic idea of demo­cratic al­lo­ca­tion of power. Since the Civil War, Democrats and Repub­li­cans have fought some­times fiercely over their ide­o­log­i­cal goals, but they al­ways re­spected the idea of lim­its on their power.

No one had come along to sug­gest that power should be un­lim­ited. But now some­one has, and we have learned some­thing very in­ter­est­ing, and alarm­ing, about these “con­ser­va­tives,” both the rank and file and hold­ers of high of­fice: their over­whelm­ing com­mit­ment is not to demo­cratic al­lo­ca­tion of power, but to their ide­o­log­i­cal goals— the an­ni­hi­la­tion of lib­er­al­ism, the restora­tion of a white ethno-na­tion­al­ist hege­mony. They know bet­ter than to speak of such things openly, but ev­ery once in a while they have al­lowed a piece of the cat’s anatomy to slip out of the bag, a tail here, a hind leg there. In June 2016, for ex­am­ple, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell said:

For all of his ob­vi­ous short­com­ings, Donald Trump is cer­tainly a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, and I think if he is in the White House he’ll have to re­spond to the right-of-cen­ter world which elected him, and the things that we be­lieve in. So I’m com­fort­able sup­port­ing him.

In other words, to McCon­nell, that “right-of-cen­ter world” pre­dated Trump, and on most im­por­tant ques­tions— taxes, dereg­u­la­tion, cul­tural is­sues, and the judges who have the power to nul­lify so many lib­eral achieve­ments— Trump would do just what McCon­nell wanted a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent to do. It has of­ten been writ­ten, and I’ve writ­ten it my­self, that the Repub­li­cans have been weak in the face of Trump­ism. But I’ve come to think that’s wrong. They’re not weak at all. Most of them are per­fectly happy to have be­come Trump’s vas­sals. They were wait­ing for just such a man.

Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity among Repub­li­cans now stands at close to 90 per­cent. This is a fairly re­cent de­vel­op­ment— since the early part of this year. No doubt it is a func­tion in part of cer­tain ac­com­plish­ments, no­tably the tax cut and the re­shap­ing of the courts. But I think it’s tied most di­rectly to the in­creas­ing aware­ness of what a se­ri­ous threat Mueller poses to the pres­i­dent. Hence the fe­ro­cious push­back, or­ches­trated by Fox. Most nights, if I’m watch­ing Rachel Mad­dow at 9 PM on MSNBC, I’ll flip over for a few mo­ments to watch Han­nity on Fox. If you don’t do this, I rec­om­mend that you do. It’s like be­ing trans­ported to a par­al­lel uni­verse. Hours con­tinue to be de­voted to why Hil­lary be­longs in jail. The Mueller probe is dis­cussed only for the pur­pose of telling view­ers how cor­rupt it is. A quick time­line will help us to un­der­stand how and when the Repub­li­can cam­paign against Mueller grew. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017. On May 17, Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rosen­stein ap­pointed Mueller as spe­cial coun­sel. The very next month, Trump or­dered the fir­ing of Mueller (some­thing he could not di­rectly do; he could fire Rosen­stein and re­place him with a lackey who would then fire Mueller). But the White House coun­sel, Donald Mc­Gahn, said he would re­sign if Trump or­dered such moves. Trump backed off. That wasn’t known pub­licly un­til The New York Times broke the story early this year, but even so, ru­mors of a fir­ing cir­cu­lated widely last sum­mer—widely enough that many Repub­li­can se­na­tors warned of grave con­se­quences for the pres­i­dent if he did so. Two bills to pro­tect Mueller, ac­tu­ally bi­par­ti­san, were writ­ten and in­tro­duced by early Au­gust 2017. It seemed then at least that some Repub­li­cans un­der­stood their con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Trump or­dered that fir­ing af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post re­vealed that Mueller

had ex­panded the probe from col­lu­sion with Rus­sia to pos­si­ble ob­struc­tion of jus­tice by Trump. Also af­ter that, Newt Gin­grich opened up a line of at­tack that quickly be­came fa­mil­iar. Mueller, he tweeted, is “the ti[p [sic] of the deep state spear aimed at de­stroy­ing or at a min­i­mum un­der­min­ing and crip­pling the Trump pres­i­dency.” Three min­utes later he tweeted, “The brazen re­def­i­ni­tion of Mueller’s task tells you how ar­ro­gant the deep state is and how con­fi­dent it is it can get away with any­thing.” I’m not 100 per­cent sure Gin­grich—who didn’t think it par­tic­u­larly brazen when Ken Starr ex­panded his probe from White­wa­ter to Bill Clin­ton’s sex life—was the first to use the phrase “deep state” in the United States (it orig­i­nated in Turkey in the 1990s to de­scribe the links be­tween the govern­ment, the po­lice, and the crim­i­nal un­der­world). But that is ex­actly the sort of boundary-push­ing that has been his tac­tic for forty years now—he once blamed a mother’s drown­ing of her two young sons on lib­er­als and the Demo­cratic Party. In any event, to the right, it’s all been a hoax, a cha­rade, and a deep-state con­spir­acy ever since.

The right-wing me­dia’s uber-vil­lain of the hour is Peter Str­zok, the FBI agent who, in the course of in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Clin­ton e-mail mat­ter in 2016, wrote some cer­tainly ill-ad­vised text mes­sages to an FBI at­tor­ney, Lisa Page, with whom he was hav­ing an af­fair, call­ing Trump an “id­iot,” an “enor­mous douche,” and a “fuck­ing id­iot,” and ex­press­ing grave alarm at the prospect of a Trump pres­i­dency. A re­port is­sued this June by the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral was highly crit­i­cal of Str­zok and un­earthed one new ex­change be­tween him and Page, in which she pleads with him in 2016 to reassure her that Trump will never be pres­i­dent, and he replies, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”

Mueller learned of these e-mails last July and dis­missed Str­zok im­me­di­ately (the mes­sages’ con­tents weren’t pub­licly known un­til early this year), and the IG re­port did not con­clude that Str­zok’s bias af­fected the out­come of the Clin­ton in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But those texts are manna from heaven to Repub­li­cans in Congress. Ohio con­gress­man Jim Jor­dan, who was a co­founder of the hard-right House Free­dom Cau­cus, has been an es­pe­cially fe­ro­cious at­tack dog on Trump’s be­half, brow­beat­ing wit­nesses who meekly re­but his con­spir­a­to­rial premises.

Str­zok tes­ti­fied once to the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, in pri­vate, in late June. On July 12 he tes­ti­fied pub­licly, and de­fi­antly, be­fore a joint meet­ing of two House com­mit­tees. He in­sisted that his per­sonal be­liefs “at no time” in­ter­fered with his de­ci­sion-mak­ing and that at­tacks on him and the FBI were “deeply de­struc­tive.” He was hounded by South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy re­peat­edly over the text mes­sages. Bob Good­latte, the Repub­li­can chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, at one point threat­ened him with crim­i­nal con­tempt for re­fus­ing to an­swer ques­tions about the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is eth­i­cally ob­li­gated not to an­swer. In re­sponse, Str­zok did what too few peo­ple do—he stood up to his ques­tion­ers and em­bar­rassed them:

I think it’s im­por­tant when you look at those texts that you un­der­stand the con­text in which they were made and the things that were go­ing on across Amer­ica. In terms of...“We will stop it”...it was in re­sponse to a se­ries of events that in­cluded then can­di­date Trump in­sult­ing the im­mi­grant fam­ily of a fallen war hero. And my pre­sump­tion, based on that hor­ri­ble, disgusting be­hav­ior, that the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion would not elect some­body demon­strat­ing that be­hav­ior to be pres­i­dent of the United States.

I’m not sure what the Repub­li­cans can do to Str­zok from here, but it seems un­likely that he will be per­mit­ted to serve out his ca­reer in peace (he was trans­ferred to hu­man re­sources).

Be­yond Str­zok, an­other Trump–GOP talk­ing point re­volves around those thir­teen an­gry Democrats men­tioned so fre­quently by Trump and Gi­u­liani, at least be­fore Gi­u­liani sud­denly dis­ap­peared from pub­lic view. Mueller made pub­lic the names and iden­ti­ties of seven­teen lawyers he had hired, and re­searchers found that thir­teen were reg­is­tered Democrats. Five had made do­na­tions to Clin­ton (two large, three small). It’s a com­plaint that in fair­ness one could imag­ine ei­ther party lodg­ing. At the same time, it’s worth not­ing that it’s a vi­o­la­tion of Jus­tice Depart­ment rules, un­der which a spe­cial coun­sel op­er­ates, for Mueller to ask the po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions of peo­ple he hires. And Mueller is him­self a Repub­li­can, but that is dis­missed now, be­cause in the Fox ver­sion of events he has ca­pit­u­lated to the deep-staters.

Thus has the ta­ble been set for full­blown leg­isla­tive as­sault on Mueller if and when he de­liv­ers a damn­ing re­port. Its ex­tent will de­pend on the na­ture of the charges. If they’re ex­plo­sive enough, per­haps some Repub­li­cans will be checked. But right now, no Repub­li­can seems in­ter­ested in de­fend­ing Mueller. Those two Se­nate bills died. Last fall, their Demo­cratic spon­sors, Chris Coons and Cory Booker, thought they were mak­ing progress in ne­go­ti­a­tions with their GOP counterparts, Lind­sey Gra­ham and Thom Til­lis, un­til they walked away. It wouldn’t have mat­tered in any case, as McCon­nell made it clear the bills wouldn’t get to the floor.

And what will Trump do, in the event of such a re­port? Deny ev­ery­thing, of course, and fight any at­tempt at sanc­tion­ing him, even if Congress at­tempts to levy one (if, that is, the Democrats re­cap­ture the House). And that’s when Eliot Co­hen’s slog­ging match will re­ally be­gin.

It is pos­si­ble that Mueller will is­sue a re­port so damn­ing and so iron­clad that Repub­li­cans will have no re­al­is­tic choice but to aban­don Trump. But that seems very un­likely. The party as a whole—and let us not fail to men­tion Ronna Rom­ney McDaniel, cur­rent chair­woman of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, niece of Mitt, and as slav­ish a Trumper as ex­ists—has spent a year and a half re­hears­ing for the big mo­ment.

Past prac­tice sug­gests all too clearly what will hap­pen. Some of the more se­nior and re­spected Repub­li­cans, the Lind­sey Gra­hams and Or­rin Hatches, will hop onto the Sun­day shows to ex­press their “grave con­cern” or some such as they did af­ter the Helsinki con­fer­ence. A few will be one or two care­ful ticks more force­ful—young Ne­braska sen­a­tor Ben Sasse, say, who has a his­tory of writ­ing tweets and Face­book posts that de­nounce Trump (and then do­ing noth­ing else). These re­proaches will gen­er­ate a round of re­spect­ful head­lines in places like Politico, enough to con­vince a few of the first-tier talk­ing heads that these men (and pos­si­bly some women; Alaska sen­a­tor Lisa Murkowski springs to mind) are se­ri­ous, that this will fi­nally be the mo­ment they will do the hon­or­able thing. And then they’ll return to their pro-Trump states and dis­tricts, lie low for a few days, and come back to Wash­ing­ton hop­ing they can qui­etly let the whole thing drop.

Other Repub­li­cans, of course, will serve as Fox News’s leg­isla­tive flacks and un­load on Mueller. This will in­clude Gowdy, al­though he is re­tir­ing; Jor­dan, as­sum­ing he is not felled in the mean­time by a scan­dal en­gulf­ing him on the ques­tion of whether he knew, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity, that a team doc­tor was tak­ing sex­ual lib­er­ties with the young ath­letes; Arkansas sen­a­tor Tom Cot­ton; Cal­i­for­nia con­gress­man Devin Nunes, who has used the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee to pro­mote bla­tantly false pro-Trump nar­ra­tives; and Florida con­gress­man Matt Gaetz, who last Novem­ber in­tro­duced a res­o­lu­tion call­ing on Mueller to re­sign and has in the short months since be­come Trump’s most com­i­cally re­li­able grov­eler.

The bulk of the rest of them will swim with the tide. The one who might be worth watch­ing is North Carolina sen­a­tor Richard Burr. As chair­man of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Burr has at least led an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that was not ded­i­cated solely to the en­ter­prise of cherry-pick­ing ev­i­dence that would ex­cul­pate the pres­i­dent, as Nunes has. A Burr com­mit­tee re­port is­sued in early July backed up the find­ings of US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies that Rus­sia did med­dle in the elec­tion to ben­e­fit Trump. Burr said dur­ing a suc­cess­ful 2016 run that he would not seek re­elec­tion. If that is still his think­ing, he may feel free to speak frankly.

It’s doubt­ful he would in­flu­ence many of his col­leagues, though. Most feel no pres­sure to de­nounce Trump. But, af­ter a year and a half of this, we may fairly con­clude that it’s worse than that. They have no wish to de­nounce Trump. He does things they dis­agree with some­times. There’s the fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion pol­icy, which one sus­pects they’d have been fine with if the polls weren’t so over­whelm­ingly bad. And there’s the mat­ter of tar­iffs, on which most Repub­li­cans do gen­uinely dis­agree, and which could pro­duce real ten­sion later on. But in the mean­time, all ev­i­dence tells us that the Repub­li­can Party is de­lighted with Trump, as we will see in the up­com­ing hear­ings for Brett Ka­vanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court.

Bar­ring a bolt of un­ex­pected light­ning, Ka­vanaugh will win con­fir­ma­tion. Even­tu­ally, the ques­tion of whether this pres­i­dent (or any pres­i­dent) can face le­gal pun­ish­ment while in of­fice will make its way to the Court. We will see then whether the tu­mor that af­flicts the leg­isla­tive branch has also con­sumed the ju­di­cial. In 1974 no one had to worry se­ri­ously that the Supreme Court would is­sue a “po­lit­i­cal” de­ci­sion on such a mat­ter, and in­deed the Court ruled 8–0 that Richard Nixon was not above the law (Nixon ap­pointee Wil­liam Rehn­quist re­cused him­self be­cause he had worked in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, but Lewis Pow­ell, Nixon’s other ap­pointee, ruled with the ma­jor­ity). We can per­mit our­selves no such san­guin­ity now. The con­ser­va­tive move­ment is a few Supreme Court de­ci­sions away from hav­ing un­lim­ited power, and one sees no Cincin­na­tus among them. —July 19, 2018

Donald Trump de­liv­er­ing the State of the Union ad­dress, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Jan­uary 2018

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