Congressional Republicans have happily had it both ways with special counsel Robert Mueller. When pressed about the integrity of his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, most have said the right things, making it clear that they believe that Mueller is doing a good job and should be allowed to get to the bottom of what happened last year. But Republicans have also undermined the investigation in numerous ways, most notably by questioning the motives and biases of members of the Department of Justice. And they have acted with little urgency to protect the special counsel from retaliation by Donald Trump, allowing a legislative effort to safeguard Mueller from being fired to peter out last year.
The moment to act has come. Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump nearly fired Mueller last July, only to back off at the last minute after White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign. It is suspected that this information was leaked because the president was once again mulling sacking the special counsel.
Republicans have responded to these developments with a shrug. “I don’t think there’s a need for legislation right now to protect Mueller,” Kevin McCarthy said Sunday on Meet the Press. “Right now there’s not an issue. So why create one when there isn’t a place for it?” This is a masterpiece of circular logic: Because Mueller has not been fired by the president, Congress should not protect him from being fired.
Many Republicans have similarly noted that the reported events in question took place in July, meaning that the president should be given the benefit of the doubt because he has refrained from firing Mueller in the intervening six months. This is not an especially stirring defense, since Trump has publicly claimed that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” and that he would be within his rights to derail the investigation if it began looking into his finances (which it has). It is even less so when you consider that this story was likely leaked to put the brakes on Trump firing Mueller now.
Republicans in both chambers have begun pushing a conspiracy theory that alleges that the FBI’s investigation into the 2016 election is being orchestrated by an anti-Trump cabal within the Department of Justice intent on bringing down the president. A secret Republican memo written by Representative Devin Nunes reportedly asserts that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein inappropriately used information from the so-called Steele dossier to gain a warrant to surveil Carter Page, who was a foreign policy aide to Trump during the campaign and who has suspected ties to Russian intelligence. Republicans insist that the Steele dossier is compromised because it was partly funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. As the Times writes, “Republicans may be moving to seize on [Rosenstein’s] role as they seek to undermine the inquiry,” since he appointed Mueller as special counsel. If Rosenstein goes, Mueller could be next.
Democrats contend that the Nunes memo has twisted the facts to discredit the Mueller investigation. And it’s hard to see this emerging theory as anything other than an attempt to provide cover for the president—either to protect him from the Mueller investigation or to give him a rationale to remove the special counsel.
But as of right now, most Republicans—who say that they want the special counsel to finish the work he has started—are sitting on their hands. They can’t have it both ways any longer. If Republicans really are serious about protecting Mueller, they must pass legislation to protect him and his investigation.