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The Trump/Ryan/McConnell War on the Rule of Law

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I have a piece for The Week about what Congress will do if Trump fires Robert Mueller. (SPOILER: nothing, because tax cuts and neoconfederate judges):

And despite the (not actually true) cliché that “it’s the coverup, not the crime,” it’s nearly certain that Trump is engaging in a coverup because he’s guilty of serious wrongdoing. It’s telling that Trump’s most strenuous objections have come after Mueller’s team started to look into Trump’s financial transactions. There’s a reason Trump violated longstanding norms by refusing to release his tax returns, and it’s certainly not because he has nothing to hide.

So we have a president who may well be guilty of serious offenses, and these offenses may have involved colluding with a foreign power’s interference into an election. And yet, Trump can probably fire Mueller and get away with it, at least in the short term. How?

In some respects, America’s Constitution might allow Trump to evade accountability. The American people saw enough problems with Trump to reject him at the ballot box, but the Electoral College installed the popular vote loser. And one prominent mechanism that can now allow Trump and his associates to evade punishment is also in the Constitution. While there’s serious question about whether Trump can pardon himself, the president is right that he has an absolute power to pardon anyone, and he can pre-emptively pardon anyone who might be implicated in illegal activity on behalf of Trump himself.

But the Constitution does have one remedy: the impeachment power. Trump would be much less likely to fire Mueller if there was a credible threat to remove Trump from office. Nixon’s decision to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox helped create a bipartisan consensus that Nixon had committed impeachable offenses. When Nixon was told that support among Senate Republicans was collapsing, he pre-emptively resigned. If the Republican congressional leadership made it clear that firing Mueller was unacceptable, Trump might be dissuaded, and if he went ahead anyway he could potentially be held accountable at an impeachment trial.

But all indications remain that Republicans will do no such thing. After all, evidence of Trump’s corruption was clear before the election, and his disregarding of norms and use of the office for his own material benefit has, if anything, exceeded the fears of his critics. And yet, congressional Republicans have been notably unwilling to exercise their oversight authority. There’s an implicit deal: Getting Republican-nominated judicial and executive branch appointments confirmed and a Republican signature for legislation that a Republican Congress can pass means that Trump can be as corrupt as he wants.

Remember: Trump can continue to hide his tax returns, inter tot alia, because Ryan and McConnell are allowing him to.

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