Before even a day had passed after Democrats routed Republicans for control of the House of Representatives, President Trump sent everything sideways once again by firing — sorry, "requesting" the resignation of — Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The most immediate question stemming from Sessions' ouster, and his (likely unconstitutional) replacement by the transparently unqualified political operative Matthew Whitaker, was about the fate of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's sprawling investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, now presumed to be in grave jeopardy as the president contemplates the steps necessary to fire him. Democrats are apoplectic. Has Trump found his willing executioner, his Robert Bork?
Probably not. The danger, as it has been for some time, is less about Mueller getting fired than it is about crafting the narrative in response to his now-inevitable report.
Mueller, after all, is said to be preparing his dossier as we speak, and while Whitaker might try to temporarily quash it, he will not be able to do so after Democrats assume control of the House in January. Any attempt to permanently bury Mueller's findings would create a Watergate-level political crisis that even the president would not enjoy. But with Whitaker at the DOJ helm, Trump can enlist the agency itself in his effort to smear the Mueller report, the efforts of his team and his conclusions, as a partisan hit-job. If the DOJ as an institution distances itself from Mueller's report, it could deal it a critical blow, depriving it of oxygen and a genuine hearing, particularly in the right-wing media. It will ensure that even coverage in the mainstream media will be of the he-said-she-said variety rather than a faithful rendering of Mueller's findings.
This has long been Trump's playbook. Even before he took office, Trump has been at war with various sectors of the executive branch, but he has taken special glee in alleging wrongdoing at the Department of Justice and the FBI, the center of what he and his allies call derisively "the deep state." Because these agencies can only fight back obliquely, and because their leaders serve at the pleasure of the president, an indispensable part of Trump's strategy has always been the belief that his team could turn allegations of collusion or obstruction of justice around on the accusers, by manufacturing doubt about the legitimacy of the various investigations. Trump has spent most of his presidency softening these targets with his rhetorical bombing campaign, and Whitaker is the mop-up ground force being sent in to clear out any remaining resistance.
The president knows that his supporters, and most Americans, only understand in broad strokes the events in question, and so he has been quick to seize on every minor allegation or kerfuffle, like the text messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, or the partisan affiliation of members of Mueller's investigative team, as a way of sowing doubt and confusion. President Trump has tweeted about Strzok and Page alone more than 30 times, and as always he has had more or less an open goal to kick into. A team of media lackeys has studiously moved the goalposts from the pre-election mantra of "I have nothing to do with Russia" to "Hillary colluded" then to "Everyone colludes" and now to a place where an obstruction charge will be dismissed with a wave of the hand, an incoherent tweet, and a threat of retaliation.
The president believes that Whitaker is this strategy's coup de grâce. If the play was to get rid of Mueller, it would have been done ages ago. Mueller was, instead, allowed to spend the last 18 months conducting a wide-ranging investigation of the Russia charges and any ancillary criminal behavior, a probe that has swept up Trumpworld figures like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and, if rumors are true, even the president's eldest son. That means that the threat to the Mueller investigation is not that the report will be quashed or buried — that is almost inconceivable. It is impunity. The president has gambled, so far correctly, that his congressional allies have galloped so far away from decency and propriety that they will tolerate almost any kind of revelation. And make no mistake — whatever is in the Mueller report is likely to be explosive. Mueller's team has spent countless hours with people like the president's former lawyer-turned-Democratic-cheerleader Michael Cohen and former White House counsel Don McGahn. Whatever they know, he knows.
Mueller's indictments this summer of 12 Russian intelligence agents in relation to the 2016 election were, if you'll recall, incredibly precise, containing a level of detail that suggests deep penetration of the Russian espionage apparatus. If there are ties between Trump campaign or administration figures with those operations, there is little question that Mueller has found and will reveal them. If there is prosecutable evidence of criminality inside the Trump Organization, you can bet that Mueller has uncovered it. But the meat of the report is likely to be details and analysis of the many actions that President Trump took to stymie the investigation, to cover up any crimes that were committed, and to corrupt the operations of the Department of Justice by turning the agency into the president's legal Republican Guard.
President Trump may be able to weather that cyclone, however brutally worded it ends up being, because he owns Senate Republicans. But Mueller presents a political as much as a legal threat to the president. Trump's relentless, outrageous attacks on the FBI, the broad-brush criticism of America's intelligence agencies, the repellant alignment with Russian denials of wrongdoing, the loopy formulations about Fusion GPS and Bruce Ohr, the lunging assault on Mueller himself and his so-called "17 Angry Dems," the guilty-seeming ramblings about the "Rigged Witch Hunt"— these things have taken a political toll. The perception of an out-of-control, indecent, possibly criminal presidency has been part of what has repelled suburban voters and moderate Republicans outside of government and driven them into the arms of waiting Democrats.
It was the Trump administration's demeanor as much as its policies that led to the loss of the GOP-gerrymandered House, undoing a decade's worth of effort on the right to consolidate Republican control of at least one branch of government more or less in perpetuity. But Trump always knew he didn't need the House to cling to power personally, nor does the GOP need to maintain more than its Senate foothold after 2020 to frustrate the policy or cultural designs of his Democratic successor. The House was, therefore, sacrificed on the altar of the president's survival.
For what did Republican congressmen lose their seats? For now, the opportunity to watch the president of the United States transform the Justice Department into the political arm of the Republican Party. Whitaker will publicly disavow Mueller's report and quietly head off any follow-up investigations until he is replaced by another, slightly more acceptable Trump backer. The right-wing media will lampoon it all, and they will now have the imprimatur of the Justice Department to back them up. The GOP's slightly-enhanced position in the Senate should allow President Trump the maneuvering room he needs to appoint just about anyone.
With a loyalist in charge, Trump will know that he can act with impunity — and not just about the Russia investigation — safe from any further investigations out of the DOJ. Such a development has implications that go far beyond the 2016 election. President Trump may be a buffoon, but he is an incredibly dangerous one, a man determined to allow the unmoored, furiously hyper-partisan, ethno-nationalist political movement he leads to capture and destroy the few remaining institutions capable of thwarting his designs. What is clearer than ever before is that it is not in Robert Mueller to hold America's destiny, but in its voters.