Over the course of the 2016 election, Russia attacked us right at home — not with guns or missiles but with weapons of information warfare aimed at weakening our country, Western allies and democratic process. For months now, investigators led by special counsel Robert Mueller have examined whether Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government and whether the president misused his power by obstructing justice in an effort to end the investigation.
Until recently, Trump showed some restraint — by his standards, anyway. He and his lawyers cooperated with Mueller and he never tweeted directly at the special counsel or spoke about him in public unless asked.
However, currently the president is drastically escalating his rhetoric towards Mueller and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who supervises the special counsel. Trump is like a Geiger counter; when he emits increasingly frequent alarms, he signals that we are approaching a dangerous and radioactive meltdown. He is said to be furious about the investigation of his campaign, which he calls “an attack on the country” — a phrase he has not used to describe the Russian interference in our election. It is my guess that Trump will order Rosenstein to fire Mueller or attempt to curb the investigation at some point in the near future. He may also fire Rosenstein or Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a Richard Nixon-esque Saturday Night Massacre.
The risk of any of these actions demands to be reckoned with. Trump already attempted to fire Mueller twice — last June and December — when reports surfaced that the special counsel was considering a possible obstruction of justice case and examining his business dealings with Deutsche Bank, respectively. Members of Congress have already done a good deal of hand-wringing in response to the president’s tirades. The most constructive step so far, though, has been a bipartisan compromise bill co-authored by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). This bill, called the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, specifies that a special counsel may only be fired for “good cause” by a senior Department of Justice official.
This bill faces great hurdles in its path to a vote, however. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said unequivocally, “We will not be having this on the floor of the Senate.” Fortunately, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has said that he will tee up the bill for a markup and vote in his committee anyway. “Obviously the views of the majority leader are important to consider, but they do not govern what happens here in the Judiciary Committee,” he said. “If consideration on the floor was the standard for approving a bill in committee or not, we wouldn’t probably be moving any bills out of this committee.”
If the bill somehow does make it to the floor, it probably will have trouble gathering enough support to pass (some Republicans have doubted its constitutionality), and even then, the errant president would have no reason to sign it. But I disagree with McConnell’s assessment that it is unnecessary. A vote would put every Senator on record as to whether or not they are willing to check the president’s power over a factual, fair, independent and coldly apolitical investigation by a career public servant. Republicans may tire of what feels like an endless investigation that is impeding their ability to execute their agenda, but it has already yielded great benefit to the country, including the indictments of 13 Russians and three companies for undermining our electoral process. The overwhelming majority of Americans want Mueller to keep his job, and how Republicans respond to threats to his investigation could determine whether or not they keep theirs.
Recall the Watergate affair, and how close Nixon came to surviving it. He was forced from office only because enough Republican leaders recognized the legitimacy of the investigation and stood up to him. And even then, it took the revelation of incriminating recordings. We don’t have recordings — yet. But it is still of critical importance that all members of Congress, regardless of party, recognize the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation by simply allowing a vote. As members of the electorate, we deserve to know, before we cast our ballots this November, which of our representatives are willing to hold the president to lawful scrutiny, just like the rest of us.
There is a Latin phrase that is famous in legal circles: “Fiat justitia ruat cælum” translates to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” In other words, the law must be followed wherever it leads, no matter what. This isn’t just about Trump, and it’s bigger even than collusion or obstruction of justice. This is about whether we live in a country where no one is above the law, including the president.