Over the last few months, and particularly in the last weeks, the Republican strategy to undermine the Mueller investigation has begun to bear fruit. Rumors are now circulating that Donald Trump will, apparently as a Christmas present to himself, fire Robert Mueller on Friday as the country, and much of the world, prepares for the holiday. Regardless of whether or not the firing occurs, something significant has changed about the Mueller investigation.
Through a relatively steady drumbeat of accusations of partisanship, behind the scenes shenanigans and consistently lying to the American people, the Trump administration, mostly with support from the Republicans in Congress, has largely defanged the Mueller investigation. Mueller may or may not be fired, but it probably does not matter. If he is fired it will not be the major paradigm shifting event that many hope. Instead, it will be a two day story. If Trump, or a subordinate at the Department of Justice, fires Mueller on December 22nd, America will be talking about something else by New Years Day at the latest and perhaps by Boxing Day. If Mueller remains in his position, any further indictments, findings or statements will be mostly grist for the partisan mill that is Washington.
The politics around the Mueller investigation shines light on a specific, and important, aspect of democratic rollback in the US. For decades one of the patriotic mantras that has been central to the American political gestalt is that we are a country governed by laws not men. The gendered language reflects how long we have been telling ourselves this. However, it is not only ourselves that we have been telling this, but we have told this to the rest of the world, over and over again. Today, that assertion is a sad reminder of what America was not that long ago. The tension between being ruled by laws or by people was always much more acute than we wanted to admit to ourselves, but in the last year the balance has decidedly shifted. Today, the US is, at the federal level, governed less by laws and more by partisanship and individual whim than any time in modern history. That trend is likely to get worse in the coming days, weeks and months.
When institutions give way to unrelenting partisanship and authoritarian caprice, the damage to any democracy is profound and enduring. This is why if Mueller is fired or if his findings are summarily ignored by a GOP controlled Congress, it will be a severe blow to our democracy. If this happens, Americans who oppose the President will lose whatever faith they still have in due process and our legal and political structures. Supporters of the President will be further empowered, knowing that profound betrayals of the American people and of democratic principles can be ameliorated, at least in a political sense, by bullying, lying and placing party above law. This is not exactly a recipe for a stable and democratic polity. However, it is very likely how the investigation will play out in the near future.
This represents a strategic challenge for those who want to strengthen, or perhaps save, American democracy. If there are no principled Republicans with whom we can disagree about policy but with whom we can agree upon the basic tenets of American democracy, the future of American democracy looks pretty grim. There are probably thousands, maybe millions, of Republicans who feel this way, but we now know beyond any doubt that none of them are sitting in the US Congress. This makes it clear that anybody counting on any support from the Republican congress on issue like the Mueller investigation, further investigations into misconduct and illegalities around the Trump administration or impeachment, will be consistently disappointed in the coming months. This does not mean there will not be isolated actions of principle and decency by individuals who are Republican members of the House or the Senate, but these will not add up to much or have any real impact.
More alarmingly, the speed with which the Republican congress has embraced Trump’s views on the Mueller investigation, the Russia scandal and American democracy more generally, raises the question of whether they will stand up for any institutions that are central to meaningful American democracy including fair elections and first amendment rights. At the moment, there is little reason to think they will; and that represents as big a threat to our democracy as Trump himself.
The last year has taught Americans that our political institutions are much weaker than we had thought. After all, even Moscow’s interference in our election was impactful because trust in the media, political parties and conventional politicians was so low. It has also taught us that neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party generally cares very much about these institutions. The former was pretty obvious a year ago, but the latter continues to surprise and sadden even some lifelong Democrats.
Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar, consultant and writer based in New York and San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell