Robert Mueller
Credit: The White House/Wikimedia Commons

I would like to expand on Jonathan Bernstein’s piece from yesterday about what’s really at stake after the FBI raided last night the offices of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney. If the president fires Special Counsel Robert Muller, what’s at stake, Bernstein wrote, is no less than the rule of law.

The question isn’t whether this or that person is the right one for the job. If Trump acts, the question will be — as it was in 1973 — whether the president is above the law.

That is precisely why the massacre blew up in Nixon’s face. Republicans didn’t care about Cox or the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, who was purged because he refused to fire Cox. When push came to shove, however, it turned out that many of them and many of their supporters did care about the rule of law.

I’m not sure whether Republicans in Congress realize yet that that could be what’s at stake.

I’m also unsure, but we do have some context to work with. Recall how the Republicans scrambled for an appropriate response to Trump’s firing last summer of FBI Director James Comey. That scramble came close to outright panic as reports leaked about how and why Trump fired Comey, including boasts from Trump to a couple of Russian diplomats that canning Comey was a relief.

The Republican near-panic ended when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein picked Mueller as the FBI’s special counsel. At that point, the GOP did not have to defend the president. When asked, they could point to the ongoing investigation, and that allowed them get on with the party’s business of cutting taxes for the rich and gutting Obamacare.

This episode suggests that the Republicans do care to some degree about appearing to be on the side of the rule of law. It tells us also that the Republicans have a decent read on public opinion. Comey’s firing was simple to understand amid an amazingly complex series of amazingly complex events, and all the more damning for being simple.

Most people most of the time don’t know much about the law, and don’t care that they don’t know much about the law, but they do know they can trust law enforcement institutions like the FBI to mostly do the right thing. Conservatives especially tend to be exceedingly deferential to law enforcement agencies. Even after all that Trump and his attack dogs in Congress have done to delegitimize the FBI and the Mueller investigation, two-thirds of Americans trust the agency over Trump.

At the same time, most Americans, even the president’s supporters, know after a year into Donald Trump’s presidency that he not only has a troubled relationship with the truth but appears wholly allergic to it. Polls show that the majority of Americans think he’s dishonest.

Put these two factors together—trust in the FBI, lack of trust in the president—and you have a context from which to reasonably infer how the GOP would respond if Trump fired Mueller. I’m not saying the Republicans would abandon the president to the winds of impeachment. I think much more would need to come to light for that to happen. But I am suggesting the Republicans won’t go along friction-free, because the cost of going along would be felt acutely.

Now, it’s true that the president can do and has done a lot to undermine the FBI’s credibility with the electorate, but bear in mind that he’s done a lot to undermine his own credibility—even with his own base. I can think of three ways.

One, the tax overhaul. The Republicans sacrificed support among affluent professional voters in high-tax blue states (the new law got rid of deductions for state and local taxes). Two, tariffs. The president’s pointless tit-for-tat with China is sparking concern as well as fury in agricultural states that will suffer most from a trade war. Three, the last budget. The Democrats pretty much got everything they wanted in that deal, and that enraged the base, so much so that the president and House Republicans are talking about ways to claw back some of those billions (it won’t work.)

When Anne Coulter tells readers they got snookered, when Richard Spencer tells followers Trump is weak, when Tucker Carlson resorts to stories about panda sex (not kidding) to distract Fox viewers from the FBI’s raid, something is happening to suggest Trump’s base isn’t as strong as it was.

I think the Republicans understand something else: If Mueller’s investigation proceeds unimpeded, they will have opportunities to rationalize the outcome. That won’t be possible, however, if Trump fires Mueller. As long was the water is muddy, the GOP has a chance. Firing Mueller, however, provides unwelcome clarity. In a real sense, Trump would “prove” he’s guilty of something by firing the man investigating him.

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.