President Trump tried to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation, as far back as last June, and was only stopped when his lawyer threatened to quit in protest, according to a breathless report in The New York Times. Several other news outlets, including the normally Trump-friendly Fox News, quickly confirmed the report on their own. Still, speaking from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the president dismissed the story thusly: "Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories."
You can drop the pretense, Mr. President. Of course you wanted to fire Mueller. And frankly, you should have.
Firing Mueller would have spared us many months of expensive inquiry that have yet to yield anything substantive. A year after Trump's inauguration, we are still faced with a lot of speculation and unrelated charges that masks the complete absence of actual evidence on what is supposed to be the focus of this probe: that Trump or any member of his campaign knowingly colluded with the Kremlin to the advantage of the former during the 2016 election.
Mueller apologists would obviously argue that the lack of concrete proof — as opposed to thinly sourced stories that can be the occasion for innuendo and idle speculation and prosecutions on totally unrelated charges — is still not grounds for dismissing the investigation. We have to see this thing through and see what Mueller has, they say.
This is starting to wear awfully thin.
Of course, it is impossible to disprove the negative here. But how far and how long are we prepared to go? It is, so far anyway, impossible to disprove the lunatic suggestion that President Kennedy was murdered by the Cuban government or the mafia or the CIA, or all three acting in cahoots. But interested parties are still breathlessly awaiting the release of further documents from the National Archives half a century later.
Mueller's probe has become an investigation of an investigation of an investigation. Mueller wants to know why Trump fired James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who wanted to know why Trump fired Flynn, his short-lived national security adviser. What is the answer going to turn out to be? Because Vladimir Putin called him and asked him to do it? Because Flynn knew too much? Or because he knew too little? Or was Comey's firing just a Kremlin-ordered fake-out?
If Trump ends up talking to Mueller, the former's critics are going to start using the phrase "obstruction of justice" again. But this is question begging. What object of justice, exactly, is being obstructed here? The current state of the investigation is so far removed from the (conjectural) epoch-making reality of Russian rigging of the election that it is impossible to discuss it in terms of right and wrong.
What have we learned from the investigation so far? Paul Manafort is a liar and swindler who allegedly laundered money years before Trump knew his name? What a surprise. Flynn lied about a professional meeting he had with a Russian diplomat after the election? Clay Shaw lied about being in the CIA too. George Papadopoulos lied about emailing someone or something called "the Professor"? Is this the same guy as Mr. X in Oliver Stone's JFK?
And for this, Mueller has earned a place for himself in the hearts and minds of millions, or at least hundreds of thousands, of Americans. He is our nation's conscience, a fearless and relentless public servant who will follow up any lead at any cost in order to defend the most sacred principles of our democracy from the neo-Soviet menace of Putinism. He is a Justice Department-subsidized paladin, who rights wrongs whenever they cross his path without regard for his tiresome legal mandate, and an indefatigable Socrates of the law whose every question reveals the bad faith and corruption of his wicked opponents. I wonder if it is even possible to see the man through the thick noxious incense of procedural sanctimony that must follow him everywhere he goes.
If Trump had fired Mueller any number of things might have happened. His lawyers might have resigned — but they would have easily been replaced. The Democrats might have started making (more) noise about impeachment, even vowing to campaign on the issue in this year's midterms and beyond. So what? A handful of Republicans who were already preparing for their post-congressional careers by pandering to Trump's opponents might have joined them. Okay. But sooner or later the whole Russia thing would have become one of those boring Washington myths that we all live with.
Trump is a bad man and a bad president. But he is not the Manchurian Candidate.