Jules Witcover: Campaign to discredit the Mueller probe indicates its progress
WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s methodical inquiry into the alleged Trump administration collusion in Russian meddling in the 2016 election seems to be coming to a head. Meanwhile, critics are targeting Mueller himself and members of his team, seeking to discredit or even derail the investigation.
They have used the fact that one of the FBI agents involved, Peter Strzok, was removed after disclosure, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, that he had exchanged texts critical of Donald Trump (who was then the Republican nominee for president) with another agent.
Committee Republicans used the hearing with Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray to imply collusion within the bureau to bias the investigation against the president. Trump, in turn, is doing his best to stamp his favorite label of “fake news” on the Mueller inquiry, which appears to be getting too close for his comfort.
The process is unlike the one that effectively removed Richard Nixon from the Oval Office after similar congressional inquiries in 1973-74, in which the Republican establishment exerted strong pressure to persuade him to resign in face of certain impeachment.
This time, there is no core of GOP faithful on Capitol Hill ready to confront its president to step aside. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have been content to lead their acquiescent flocks to swallow a transparently flawed tax reform bill as a reward for laying off.
Their Republican predecessors in 1974, Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona, along with Nixon friend Barry Goldwater, confronted Nixon with the reality that he didn’t have the votes to beat the impeachment rap, which was based on provable criminal activity in planning to bribe the Watergate burglars for their silence, and in calling off the dogs at the FBI.
The case against Trump seems not yet to have reached the stage of criminality. Rather it is the conviction of his harshest critics that he is lacking in temperament, experience and knowledge to be fit for the presidency.
Mueller’s deliberate quest for the Constitution’s loosely defined “high crimes and misdemeanors” suggests he may have found them in the abuse of presidential power. Trump’s reported pitch to then FBI Director James Comey, to let former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn off the hook for lying about meeting the Russian ambassador, would seem to be prima facie evidence.
But whether claim that would be enough to induce a majority of the Republican-controlled House first to impeach Trump and then have the more narrowly controlled Senate convict him by the required two-thirds vote seems a very big order right now.
If the Constitution permitted the recall of a president by popular vote, as is provided in many states for governors, it would be easier to remove Trump from the Oval Office. But even then such an outcome would be far from certain.
Overcoming or reversing the will of the electorate in this way predictably would trigger a major public pushback, even given the fact that Trump actually lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about 3 million ballots.
There can be little doubt after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, however, that while the country’s economy is holding its own, whether because of his policies or in spite of them, a deep division of opinion prevails about the man himself.
The best hope for a resolution of this national conundrum remains a credible conclusion of the painfully deliberate but legal and necessary Mueller investigation within Trump’s own Justice Department.
It may not in the end produce his removal, but at a minimum it should encourage a national debate on the imperative of re-examining the process of electing the American president, and of protecting it from foreign powers that would interfere with the will of the people.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.