WASHINGTON — Washington, as we know, is riven by vicious partisanship, with those on the right and left at each other’s throats over the most pressing issue that this nation has faced in decades. We are, of course, talking about the violently differing opinions and never-ending hot takes about Michelle Wolf’s comedy act at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Amid the nonstop invective, it was easy to have missed Capitol Hill’s equivalent of Halley’s Comet — a rare celestial display of welcome bipartisanship in a matter relating to Donald Trump and Robert Mueller. The Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, by a 14-7 vote (with four Republicans joining the panel’s Democrats in the majority), approved legislation designed to safeguard the special counsel from being arbitrarily fired by Trump. The bill was designed to protect Mueller from the wrath of a cornered president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vows that the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act will never reach the chamber floor. McConnell’s obstinance is in keeping with his see-no-evil role as Trump’s protector. According to Joe Biden and other Obama officials, McConnell single-handedly scuttled a bipartisan letter in the fall of 2016 warning about Russian meddling in the presidential election.
The four Judiciary Committee Republicans who supported the legislation — Chairman Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis and Jeff Flake — deserve plaudits for their efforts to protect Mueller since it’s an unpopular position in their party.
Egged on by Fox News and Trump’s scorched-earth defenders, 82 percent of Republicans call the investigation into the 2016 Russia connection “a partisan witch hunt” in a national Quinnipiac University poll released last week. And in the same survey, only 17 percent of Republicans support “a bill to prevent President Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller.”
But only those innocents who imagine leprechauns dancing in the garden would deny the continuing threat to Mueller from a Trump tantrum. The risk of a constitutional crisis ratcheted up this week after the New York Times obtained a list of more than four dozen questions — many hinting at obstruction of justice — that Mueller wants to ask Trump.
Trump fanned the fires by tweeting Tuesday morning: “So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were ‘leaked’ to the media.” In truth, the leak is much more likely to have come from the Trump side since this material was recently provided to the president’s ever-changing team of lawyers.
No one, with the possible exception of Mueller himself, knows where this inquiry is headed. For all the president’s constant claims of “no collusion,” it should be worrisome for the White House that Mueller wants ask Trump, “What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?” Now under indictment, Manafort was Trump’s former 2016 campaign manager.
This is about the moment when many Democrats begin imagining that the many strands of the Mueller investigation will eventually lead to impeachment proceedings against Trump if they take back the House this November.
But last week’s burst of bipartisanship on the Senate Judiciary Committee is a reminder of one of the enduring lessons of Watergate. It was not the fury of the Democrats but rather the dedication to the rule of law by influential congressional Republicans that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation after impeachment looked inevitable.
When the House Judiciary Committee voted on Nixon’s fate in late July 1974, seven of the committee’s seventeen Republicans supported at least one article of impeachment. These seven Republicans included Virginia conservative M. Caldwell Butler who said right before the committee vote, “For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct. But Watergate is our shame.”
The devastating House Judiciary vote came before the release of what became known as “the smoking gun” tape. This telltale Oval Office conversation, conducted right after the 1972 Watergate break-in, featured Nixon talking about arranging for the CIA to intervene with the FBI: “They should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case.”
There are echoes of the obstruction of justice case against Nixon in some of Mueller’s questions for Trump.
The special counsel’s list of queries include: “What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats … that firing Mr. (James) Comey had taken the pressure off?” and “Did you discuss whether Mr. (Jeff) Sessions would protect you?”
It must be stressed that lines of inquiry are far different than actual evidence. And it is possible that Trump’s actions and threats stem from a combination of willful ignorance of legal norms and an almost medieval demand for personal fealty.
But whether Trump’s offenses ever amount to more than that will not be decided by liberal editorialists and talking heads on MSNBC.
Instead, what happens if the Mueller investigation ends in a dramatic firing or in the airing of grave charges against the president depends on congressional Republicans. They bought Trump, they embraced him and now they own him.
Sure, the Democrats, if they take back the House, could go off the rails as the Republicans did in impeaching Bill Clinton. But now with two decades hindsight, the GOP’s one-party vendetta against Clinton seems ludicrously over-wrought and dangerously destructive to constitutional norms.
Trump’s downfall, if it ever occurs, will require Republicans saying — as Caldwell Butler did about Nixon — “Donald Trump is our shame.”
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.