White House Threats Are Actually Mobilizing the Forces Determined to Protect Mueller
The sound you hear is the fingers of Robert Mueller drumming on his desk. The special prosecutor wants to talk to President Trump. He has some questions. He’s had these questions for months, and now, as his investigation winds up, he needs to speak with one more witness: the man in the Oval Office.
The president, meanwhile, is stalling. He can’t make up his mind about who he wants to defend him (hello, Rudy, see ya, Joe), much less whether he should answer Mueller’s questions. When John Dowd, Trump’s lawyer from Wall Street, advised his client to cooperate, he was eased off the team. (Bye, John.)
Now someone—perhaps in the White House—has leaked 40 of Mueller’s questions for Trump. The questions illuminate the president’s perilous predicament. Answer honestly and incriminate himself in all many of shady deals, or stick with his factually challenged denials and confirm charges of obstruction of justice.
With the legal pressure rising, Trump has to be contemplating what he mused about privately last June and again in December: Fire Mueller and admit nothing.
Last year, Trump avoided mentioning Mueller’s name. Now he sounds like a man with an itchy trigger finger. When asked last month if he was going to fire Mueller and or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump replied, "They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of them for the last 3 months, 4 months, 5 months, and they’re still here,” he complained.
The elimination of Mueller—unthinkable according to Washington conventional wisdom last summer—is now possible, if not likely.
In response, the anti-Trump resistance of the left and the #NeverTrump movement of the right, and a lot of people in between, are quietly mobilizing to defend the Special Prosecutor.
While strategies vary according to politics, the common denominator of Mueller’s defenders is to claim the legal high ground. One leftist critic insists that Mueller is “no hero,” to which a law professor adds he is “no superhero” either. But activists say they are defending the rule of law, not the man.
At the Grassroots
MoveOn.org is leading the national mobilization for Mueller with its “Trump is not above the law” website.
“Our response in the hours following a potential power grab will dictate what happens next—whether Congress will stand up to Trump or allow him to move our democracy toward authoritarianism,” says MoveOn in its appeal.
“Organizing people for something you don’t want to happen” is a difficult “ask” for activists, notes David Sievers, campaign manager for MoveOn. Yet when speculation about Mueller’s firing flared last month, Sievers says 10,000 people a day were signing up to defend the former FBI director.
MoveOn claims that if Trump fires Mueller, protesters will mount more than “Nobody Is Above the Law” rallies in 900 cities and town around the country within 24 hours.
The organization's “rapid response” formula is strictly by the numbers. “If actions are triggered before 2 p.m. local time,” the group’s instructions say, “events will begin at 5 p.m. local time. If actions are triggered after 2 p.m. local time, events will begin at noon local time the following day.”
MoveOn’s map shows pro-Mueller rallies are planned from Fairbanks Alaska to Key West. More than 14,000 people are pledged to protest at the White House. More than 16,000 say they will gather in New York’s Times Square.
Cindy McGrane, an Indivisible activist in Asheville, North Carolina, says she has signed up more than 1,000 people to protest in Pack Square, home of the city’s courthouse.
“I heard from a guy in a nursing home, who said, ‘I’m an invalid. I don’t have resources. I can’t get out. But I’m with you,'” McGrane said.
On the Right
While the liberal-left anti-Trump resistance wants to put bodies in the streets, the conservative opposition wants to win the hearts and minds of quiet Republicans.
Last month, the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, issued a statement saying Mueller’s dismissal or preemptive pardons of Trump’s entourage would constitute “a grave abuse of power that justifies initiation of impeachment proceedings.”
“It is morally imperative that the Republican Party and the conservative movement stand as bulwarks of the rule of law, not enablers of its erosion and violation. Now is the time for choosing,” said a statement signed by 29 leading conservatives including Iraq war cheerleader William Kristol and gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan.
Republicans for Rule of Law, established last month by five GOP operatives, is funding television ads designed in select states to buck up Republicans who don't like Trump's contempt for the law but fear alienating his supporters.
“The goal is to help Republicans find a voice,” said spokesperson Sarah Longwell. “This is a very clear-cut issue for people who believe in the rule of law. It doesn’t mean that you think the president has done something that wrong.”
Asked what the group would do if Trump acts on his stated desire to fire Mueller, Longwell demurred. “We’re not focused on the day after,” she said.
A bipartisan group of senators wants to fortify Mueller’s position with legislation empowering him to appeal any dismissal to federal judges.
Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill cosponsored by Democrats Chris Coons (Del.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) and Republicans Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) to do just that. Although the 14-7 vote on the measure split Republicans, the message to Trump was clear. Firing Mueller will alienate some previously loyal supporters such as committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Perhaps the most novel pro-Mueller strategy comes from Washington attorneys John Tye and Mark Zaid. In a New York Times column, they argue that if Mueller is fired he should deliver all of his now-classified evidence to Congress with the hope that it would immediately leak.
“The moment he was dismissed, Mr. Mueller could lawfully take all the evidence he had collected—even the most highly classified materials—straight to Congress,” they write. “If he personally lost access to the evidence, a remaining member of the Office of Special Counsel could do the same.”
“Such a move would require speedy execution, so his office should already have a contingency plan,” said Tye and Zaid, founders of a non-profit called Whistleblowers Aid. “…Someone with proper security clearance would probably need to manually transport the evidence—hard copy pages or encrypted hard drives—from the special counsel’s facility to Capitol Hill, less than a mile away.”
The situation is volatile, they note, straight out of a Washington thriller. "Trump might order federal marshals to arrest Mueller’s courier en route, alleging national security information was being mishandled."
“But if the evidence safely reached Congress, the president probably could not contain it,” they went on. “The 37 members of Congress on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as their staffs, are authorized to receive the most sensitive of classified information. Committee members from both parties would get access.”
Mueller’s investigation might be killed, but the evidence he has gathered would come into public view.
Trump and his Republican loyalists are running out of time to fend off Mueller encroachments. While speculation about Mueller’s firing has abated since last month, the leak of Mueller’s questions triggered another irate tweet from Trump on Tuesday complaining about “a made up, phony crime, collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information.”
Recently, the news cycle has gravitated more to Trump’s female antagonists, Stormy Daniels and Michelle Wolf, than to Mueller. But the final showdown over the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election seems closer than ever.
Last month, McConnell said he will not bring the Coons-Booker-Graham-Tillis bill to the floor. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Senate is no firewall protecting Mueller.
On Monday House Republicans moved to impeach Rosenstein, Mueller’s boss and the only government official with the power to actually fire him. Whether the #NeverTrump right can persuade any significant number of Republican officeholders to defend Rosenstein and Mueller is unknown. As Eric Alterman notes, so far they have totally failed.
That leaves street protest and media leaks as the last line of defense for the Special Prosecutor. The opposition to Trump spans the political spectrum but its power to enforce the rule of law on a mendacious chief executive is unproven. The support for Trump is much narrower but perhaps firmer in its unquestioning fervor.
By any measure, the independence of the American legal system is in danger. The Niskanen Center had it right: “Now is the time for choosing.”