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We’re on the Brink of an Authoritarian Crisis

If Trump fires Robert Mueller or pardons himself, Republicans won't do a thing about it—and our democracy will be changed forever.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

There were many reasons to be alarmed by the transcript of President Donald Trump’s Wednesday interview with The New York Times, but if you drew back the lenses of time and context far enough, it foretold a deeper crisis than the text suggested—one that may be unfolding already.

The scope of that crisis is much clearer now that the Washington Post is reporting that Trump is discussing the possibility of pardoning himself, his family, and his closest aides to short-circuit the sprawling investigation of his campaign’s complicity in Russia’s subversion of the 2016 election. Trump’s team is also, according to the Post and another Times story, digging up dirt on the special counsel investigators in an attempt to discredit them.

In light of this dizzying news, it’s worth returning to the Times interview. Trump’s juiciest comments pertained to his attorney general, uber-loyalist Jeff Sessions, whom he resents for recusing from that investigation. But these grievances were already known, as was the fact that Trump has considered terminating Robert Mueller, the man leading the inquiry. What made the Times interview explosive was Trump’s suggestion that he would fire Mueller for delving too deeply into his finances.

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia—is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes.

And what lit the fuse was contemporaneous reporting, first from the Times and then from Bloomberg, that Mueller is indeed investigating Trump’s business entanglements, as it was widely expected he would. “FBI investigators and others,” Bloomberg reported, “are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008.”

The confluence of these two developments confronts Trump with a choice between backing down from his threat and making good on it, perhaps while issuing pardons promiscuously and to catastrophic effect.

The loud hum of chaos and spectacle engulfing the Trump administration is drowning out a creeping reality: We are on the brink of an authoritarian crisis that will make the firing of FBI Director James Comey seem quaint in hindsight.

In a more rule-bound environment, Mueller’s interest in opening Trump’s books would probably be checkmate for the president. Quite apart from the question of whether his campaign conspired with Russian intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it is widely suspected that a peek under the hood of the Trump organization will reveal serious financial crimes. Assuming that informed speculation is correct, and assuming our system of checks hasn’t broken down, Mueller would uncover the wrongdoing and bring down a president, or Trump would fire Mueller and Congress would step in to edge Trump out.

But at the moment there are no reliable sources of accountability. None.

Republicans have given every indication over the course of the past several months that no malfeasance, no matter how naked and severe, will impel them to rein in Trump or impeach him. Outside of Congress, the hope would be that firing Mueller—let alone pardoning the targets of his investigation—would essentially cost Trump control of the Justice Department. George W. Bush nearly lost his DOJ when his senior aides attempted to subvert department protocols to renew an unlawful spying program. Nixon, in the Saturday Night Massacre, had to fire DOJ leaders one after one until he found an appointee—Solicitor General Robert Bork—who would dismiss the Watergate counsel.

We unfortunately cannot count on any similar blowback here. By unmanning the attorney general to the newspaper of record, Trump raised speculation that Sessions would resign, but Sessions is living his best life destroying minority communities at the moment, so resigning is the farthest thing from his mind. “I have the honor of serving as attorney general,” he said on Thursday. “It’s something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department.”

Sessions’s deputy, Rod Rosenstein, isn’t as obviously invested in the Trump presidency as his boss is. But Rosenstein was complicit in Comey’s firing. He resisted pressure to appoint a special counsel for more than a week after Trump fired Comey, and only relented after Comey seemingly forced his hand. More recently, Rosenstein appeared on Fox News and issued a less-than-full-throated defense of the special counsel investigation that he oversees. “At the Department of Justice, we judge by results,” he said, “and so my view about that is, we’ll see if they do the right thing.”

Trump’s nominee to lead the FBI, Chris Wray, lacks the obvious baggage that Sessions and, to a lesser extent, Rosenstein carry. But he is Trump’s handpicked Comey replacement. And, as Trump made clear to the Times, he sees no meaningful impediment to coopting federal law enforcement agencies and their leaders. “I could have ended that whole [investigation] just by saying—they say it can’t be obstruction because you can say: ‘It’s ended. It’s over. Period,” Trump said, adding, “The F.B.I. person really reports directly to the president of the United States.”

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the DOJ leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a GOP House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.