Have you heard that President Trump might fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller? Have you heard that he is irretrievably compromised, a close confidante of former FBI Director James Comey? Have you heard that Comey's Senate testimony vindicates President Trump and makes Mueller's work needless at best? Have you seen the story headlined on the Drudge Report that Mueller is staffing his investigation with Democratic donors? Do you agree with disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that it is "delusional" to think that this investigation could possibly be fair?
Since Comey's testimony last week made it clear that President Trump may very well have obstructed justice by firing the former FBI director, it has been Defcon 1 in Trump world. They know that Comey alone probably can't bring down Trump, and therefore the president's apologists have pointed the firehose of innuendo, fabrication, and exaggeration at Mueller himself. All of these viral spores — the Drudge links and fever-swamp hit pieces — are designed to infect the broader public with doubt and hostility toward Mueller's investigation of the alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives seeking to undermine America's democracy. The axis of fabulist websites like Polizette and Breitbart is working overtime to discredit Mueller, operating hand in hand with their more mainstream handmaidens in the Republican mediasphere.
Just don't be fooled about what they're really up to.
President Trump is not going to fire Mueller any more than the Golden State Warriors are going to trade Steph Curry this offseason. It might be unwise to gamble on the president's faculties and political sensibilities, but in this case not even Trump is this stupid. Pink-slipping Mueller would destroy what little is left of his presidency by making it clear to everyone that the president has something criminal to hide. In a year that has seen almost nothing but a series of scandals and violations of the rule of law by the clownish amateurs running the country, firing a special counsel before he has even had a chance to do his work would cause a subcritical political meltdown in the capital. Whether Trump is really considering firing Mueller, as press reports indicate, or whether this is just another staffer throwing marbles down the steps for reporters to chase is anyone's guess. But Trump is already badly adrift politically, his approval ratings mired in the 30s, his profoundly unpopular agenda hopelessly stalled in Congress. The last thing Trump or the Republicans need is another layer of intrigue on the Russia scandal.
What is happening, instead, is an effort to cast doubt on Mueller's conclusions, whatever they ultimately may be, and to turn as many swamp creatures against the investigation as possible. The goal is to create a cloud of doubt, to make sure that every news article about the investigation mentions Mueller's detractors and notes the GOP commentariat consensus that he has embarked on a witch hunt designed to bring down an innocent president. Fouling the air with unseemly allegations, second-hand rumors, and clever half-truths is precisely the strategy that Republicans have used to undermine broad consensus on issue after issue, from Hillary Clinton's honesty to the reality of anthropogenic climate change.
This cynical strategy must not be allowed to succeed. The baseline viability of the American constitutional order is at stake here. Mueller served the longest stint as the FBI's head honcho since J. Edgar Hoover. Appointed to the office by George W. Bush, he was so well regarded in Washington — Garrett Graff says he "might just be America's straightest arrow" — that former President Obama reappointed him for a special two-year term. There isn't enough dirt on this guy to fill a windowsill flower pot and he is held in the highest regard by otherwise ruthless partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
Notably, even elected Republicans otherwise inclined to pawn their integrity for a Diet Coke and an Amazon gift card have not stooped to smearing the unimpeachable Mueller. At least not yet. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that firing Mueller "would be a disaster." Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another elected Republican who frequently criticizes Trump but rarely does anything substantive to rein him in, called a move against Mueller "extremely unwise." Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R) went on the record with similar statements of support for Mueller after rumors of his firing sent everyone in D.C. scrambling to Twitter.
However, it should be clear by now that Graham, Collins, McCain, and other "moderate" Republicans are not where we should be looking for where the party will ultimately end up on any given issue. The same group of Republican senators that expressed so much dismay at the super-secret TrumpCare bill now appears to be willing to cave and vote for it, if only to get Trump a single legislative victory. Collins, of course, was more than willing to mouth Republican talking points at Comey during his testimony in an effort to run point for Trump, and we should expect all Republican senators to eventually toe the company line on Mueller as well. They seem incapable of withstanding the political pressure from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the party's rabid base long enough to hold the president accountable.
That means the thing to look for is not whether Mueller will be fired, but how the GOP reacts when conclusions start getting leaked and the final report comes in, whenever that might be. The fusillade of attacks on Mueller should therefore be seen not as an opening salvo in the campaign to unseat him, but as a long game designed to discredit him and his investigation. Today's Breitbart fantasy will be next month's talking points for Susan Collins. The real question for anyone who cares about the integrity of American democracy should be this: Why is the GOP, once again, willing to to debase itself to prevent the whole truth from coming out? If Trump and his advisers are genuinely innocent of collaboration with the Russians, or of other Russia-related financial and political malfeasance, why wouldn't they simply shut up and get out of the way?
The answer to that question could very well determine how much longer Donald Trump will be the president of the United States.