Washington is all abuzz with rumors about the fate of Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to examine “any links and/or coordination” between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
According to some reporting, Donald Trump’s allies believe he will have a “meltdown” and try to fire Mueller if the special counsel does not quickly wrap up the investigation and exonerate the president. (It wouldn’t be a simple procedure for Trump to get rid of Mueller, but if he’s determined to do so, he almost certainly can.) Meanwhile, elected Republicans and conservative news outlets are obsessively attacking Mueller in a clear bid to lay the groundwork for Trump to pardon any of his subordinates convicted on charges growing out of the Russia probe.
But one thing’s for sure: If Trump does take some kind of outrageous action against Mueller, the Republican Party will mumble, look down at its shoes, and then do nothing whatsoever. Earlier this year there was momentum among a small number of GOP lawmakers to join with Democrats to pass legislation protecting Mueller, but that’s quietly petered out. There may be some opposition from some Republicans, but the odds of it being enough to stop Trump are quite low.
If this occurs it should come as no surprise to anyone. It’s simply the logical endpoint of decades of effort by the Republican Party and its media penumbra to shield the GOP from the rule of law or any small-D democratic norms. Today’s GOP sees any and all rules just as billionaire New York real estate developer Leona Helmsley saw taxes – they’re only for “the little people.”
There’s always been a significant faction of the U.S. right, rooted mostly in large corporations, that’s similar to the right in Latin America, in that it genuinely sees democracy as illegitimate. The success of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s was a gigantic shock to their system, and there were two small scale efforts by Wall Street and big business to overthrow Roosevelt via military coup. Meanwhile, John Foster Dulles, a powerful corporate lawyer who later became secretary of state during the Eisenhower administration, told his clients facing new government restrictions: “Do not comply. Resist the law with all your might, and soon everything will be all right.”
Dulles was wrong. From the viewpoint of conservatives, things did not get “all right” anytime soon. The New Deal was such a stunning political success that, starting with Roosevelt’s election in 1932, Democrats held the majority in the House of Representatives for 58 of the next 62 years until 1994. Democrats controlled the more-aristocratic Senate almost as firmly during the same period, for 52 years, and even managed to gain the presidency for a majority of that time. They provided an imperfect but real check on the right’s dream of rolling back the 20th century and returning the U.S. to the late 1800s.
But Dulles and company handed their commitment to massive resistance down to their ideological descendants. And soon enough it erupted spectacularly during the presidency of Richard Nixon.
There was an enormous amount of liberal self-congratulation after the Watergate investigation and Nixon’s resignation. The system worked! But that was true only in the sense that the system worked when Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion. And even that comparison isn’t quite accurate: Americans, at least, were aware of Capone’s bigger crimes.
By contrast, Nixon’s most monstrous misconduct remains largely unknown, even today. It’s now proven that during the 1968 campaign he directly ordered his underlings to collude with a foreign power – South Vietnam – to prevent a peace deal that could have ended the Vietnam War. His motive was the most craven imaginable: He was worried that peace might help his opponent, Hubert Humphrey. Instead, Nixon won the presidency and in 1973 signed a treaty on essentially the same terms available five years earlier. Tens of thousands of Americans, as well as hundreds of thousands of people across Indochina, died thanks to what can without hyperbole be called treason by Nixon.
Then there’s Nixon’s “secret” bombing of Cambodia, during which the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives – more than had been used by the Allies during all of World War II – on one of the poorest countries on earth. This was a blatant violation of the U.N. Charter and hence of the U.S. Constitution, yet the House Judiciary Committee rejected an article of impeachment condemning it. This left the Nixon administration’s preposterous legal justification available for the Obama administration to cite over 40 years later as vindication for drone strikes in countries with which the U.S. is not at war.
Instead Nixon was nailed for quite real fraud, bribery and obstruction of justice. But the committee’s Bill of Particulars, which describes Nixon soliciting campaign contributions from McDonald’s in return for letting them raise the price of a quarter pounder cheeseburger, does make it all seem, in the scheme of things, like small potatoes.
While the Watergate investigation has been portrayed as a proud moment of bipartisan commitment to America’s glorious ideals, this is nearly the opposite of the truth. Nixon would unquestionably have evaded punishment if Republicans rather than Democrats had controlled Congress.
Even with Democrats in charge, the first congressional attempt to look into it, led by populist Rep. Wright Patman, was effectively killed by Gerald Ford, who at the time was the House Republican leader. (While Ford claimed he was only doing this because of a belief in good governance, he almost certainly was acting on Nixon’s orders.)
Then there’s Howard Baker, the top Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee. Baker has long been celebrated for asking, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” But Baker was actually asking that in an attempt to protect Nixon, and secretly met with Nixon to provide him with intelligence about the committee’s activities. The glowing reviews for Fred Thompson, then the committee’s minority counsel and later a GOP senator from Tennessee, are also a myth.
Meanwhile, Republicans engaged in their now-familiar cut-and-paste attacks on the press. Nixon’s press secretary declared in 1972 that “I use the term shoddy journalism, shabby journalism, and I’ve used the term character assassination. … This is a political effort by the Washington Post, well-conceived and coordinated, to discredit this administration.” The purported coordination, of course, was supposedly with George McGovern, Nixon’s opponent that year.
In the end, only a third of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted for the three successful articles of impeachment. And even they largely did not do so out of any kind of high-mindedness. Rather, by 1974 the economy had collapsed — characters in the movie “Network,” made during this period, repeatedly refer to “the depression” — taking Nixon’s popularity with it.
So with a slightly different roll of history’s dice, Nixon might have skated. But he didn’t. At that point Republicans could have taken one of two lessons from the experience: either “Don’t commit impeachable offenses” or “Build walls to protect yourself when you commit impeachable offenses … and get revenge.” They went with door number two.
It was during the Nixon administration that Roger Ailes developed what he called “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” Eventually this would become Fox News, and give Ailes the power to generate a self-contained alternate reality for the Republican grassroots. The right’s other area of vulnerability was the courts, which had repeatedly ruled against Nixon. The so-called “Powell memo,” which laid down the blueprint for the right’s counteroffensive of the last 40 years, emphasized that “the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.” Ever since, the right has made an enormous investment in shaping the Supreme Court as well as lower courts, in particular the critical U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
At the same time, the Democratic Party was undergoing a peculiar cultural shift that’s led them to celebrate losing honorably for the good of the country. This was in fact the exact language of Clark Clifford, one of the “wise men” surrounding Lyndon Johnson when his administration discovered Nixon’s appalling Vietnam chicanery just before the 1968 election. Clifford successfully argued to Johnson that “some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story … It could cast [Nixon’s] whole administration under such doubts that I would think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.” Top Democrats, including Johnson, Clifford, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow generously took Nixon’s secret with them to their graves.
The same perspective caused Democrats to meekly accept a new status quo when it came to special counsels. Incredibly enough, there hasn’t been a significant investigation headed by a special counsel who’s a Democrat since Nixon fired Archibald Cox in 1973. Democrats have internalized a heads-you-win-tails-I-lose belief that an investigation of a Republican administration can’t be handled by a Democrat, whereas one investigating a Democratic administration must be conducted by a Republican. The same goes for the head of the FBI: Every single one in the bureau’s history, including three appointed by Democratic presidents, has been a Republican.
For their part, the elite print and broadcast media accepted the right’s critique that they were – as huge profit-driven corporations naturally tend to be – horribly liberal. This made them uncomfortable with their own power, and they decided not to use it against Republicans. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post during Watergate, explained in his autobiography that he “began to feel subconsciously that what the world did not need right away was another investigation that might again threaten the foundations of democracy. What the newspaper did not need right away was another fight to the finish with another president — especially a Republican president. [emphasis in original]”
This dynamic — an aggressive GOP versus a Democratic Party and media both terrified of getting two for flinching – has only accelerated since.
During the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan almost certainly committed impeachable offenses. Specifically, he had, in violation of the Arms Control Act, approved the sale of weapons to Iran in 1985. After the story broke, the independent counsel named to investigate it was Lawrence Walsh, a stalwart Republican who’d previously been appointed to various high-level positions during the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.
It didn’t matter. As it became clear that Reagan was vulnerable, and his underlings had engaged in a massive cover up to protect him, Walsh was ferociously attacked by his own party. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times denounced him, as did members of the mainstream media anxious to demonstrate that they’d turned over a new, less-liberal leaf.
By the end of 1992, Walsh had discovered that Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, had likely committed his own impeachable crimes while concealing his role in the scandal. But Bush, on his way out the door after losing to Bill Clinton, pardoned six convicted or indicted Iran-Contra defendants. “George Bush’s misuse of the pardon power,” Walsh later wrote, “made the cover up complete.”
But if Republicans were certain that Republican presidents were innocent, they knew that Clinton, as a Democrat, was inherently guilty. All they needed to do was figure out exactly why.
The New York Times got the ball rolling with its preposterous coverage of the Whitewater scandal – which did indeed involve minor crimes, but none committed by Bill or Hillary Clinton. Republicans seized upon Whitewater to demand an independent counsel.
Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, chose Robert Fiske, a Republican who’d been appointed U.S. District Attorney by Gerald Ford. Unfortunately, Fiske failed to produce the right results: The Clintons had not improperly tried to influence bank regulators in Arkansas, nor had they murdered White House counsel Vince Foster. The Wall Street Journal decried “The Fiske Cover Up.”
There was only one solution: another, more disciplined Republican independent counsel. Two GOP-appointed judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia replaced Fiske with Kenneth Starr. Starr produced results after a mere four years, having somehow expanded the Whitewater investigation to cover Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s impeachment was overseen by Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, an enthusiastic adulterer and child molester, respectively. (The Whitewater probe was eventually wrapped up in 2003, nine years after it started, by a third Republican counsel, Robert Ray.)
Next up was the 2000 election. It’s been totally forgotten now, but in the week before the vote, the George W. Bush campaign became worried Bush might win the popular vote while losing the electoral college. They therefore laid plans to grab the presidency with national demonstrations demanding that Al Gore bow to the clearly expressed will of the people.
Gore was even preemptively condemned for his selfishness. Ray LaHood, a Republican member of the House from Illinois, declared that it “would be an outrage” if Gore assumed office under such circumstances. Chris Matthews also felt strongly, saying that “knowing him as we do, [Gore] may have no problem taking the presidential oath after losing the popular vote to George W. Bush.”
Of course, exactly the opposite happened. Bush officially won Florida and the electoral college when the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount in a 5-4 decision. The five members of the majority were all chosen by Republican presidents, while two of the dissenters were GOP appointees and two had been picked by Clinton. Gore immediately and obediently conceded.
A full examination published in November 2001 found that under every possible standard Gore would have won Florida if all the votes had been counted. The Washington Post published a story about this on page A10.
By then Matthews and LaHood had both long lost interest in this subject. Matthews, who said that he’d voted for Bush, became a star on the liberal MSNBC. Nine years afterward in 2009, President Obama named LaHood secretary of transportation.
Within a few years, Bush was embroiled in the Valerie Plame affair. Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed by James Comey, then-deputy attorney general, to investigate. While Comey was a Republican, Fitzgerald, in a scandalous anomaly, was not. He wasn’t a Democrat, of course; he was just an independent.
He was also loudly slurred as unconscionably biased.
Bill Kristol, a top neoconservative, pronounced that “the whole prosecution is absurd” because Fitzpatrick “is now out to discredit the Bush administration.” William Safire called him “a runaway Chicago prosecutor,” while CNN’s Lou Dobbs said Fitzgerald was engaging in “an onerous, disgusting abuse of government power.” Four months after Bush administration official Scooter Libby was convicted of multiple counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, Bush commuted his sentence.
That brings us to today and the Mueller investigation, with the GOP exploring new frontiers of rhetoric. It goes without saying that Mueller, a Republican appointed by a Republican deputy attorney general who in turn was appointed by a Republican president, is running an investigation that’s incredibly unfair to Republicans. Fox’s Jesse Watters has been making the case that it is in fact “a coup” aiming to destroy Trump “for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters.” For her part, Fox’s Jeanine Pirro believes that “the only thing that remains is whether we have the fortitude to not just fire these people immediately, but to take them out in cuffs.” Trump himself has referred to the FBI, one of the most notoriously conservative government agencies, as constituting a “rigged system” — rigged against him – whose “reputation is in Tatters.”
So, it’s almost impossible to imagine Trump being forced to pay any price by fellow Republicans. The GOP has spent 43 years constructing an enormous network of well-funded, committed defenders in Congress, the courts and the media. This in turn has allowed them to live in a mental universe in which they cannot do wrong, and therefore any attempts to impose restrictions on them are morally outrageous. The system is now working at full throttle. As Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan and H.W. Bush staffer, and current GOP heretic, forlornly says, if Watergate happened today, “Nixon would have finished his term.”