Jeff Sessions lasted in his post as attorney general for 18 hours after the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives on Election Day. His ouster, anticipated for months, may finally allow the president to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller without consequence. Even for a country now accustomed to whiplash, it was a head-spinning day: the promise of national civic renewal followed by yet another potentially catastrophic threat to the health of American democracy.
The juxtaposition revealed the central challenge of this political moment. Despite the Democrats’ victory on Tuesday, the midterms showed that Trumpism has a real political constituency—and that the geographic distribution of that constituency combines with the structure of American government to provide the president with protection from a friendly Senate. The struggle to uphold the rule of law and to call Trump to account is ultimately a political fight with no easy shortcuts. It’s a hard, bitter slog, with a long way yet to travel.
Continued Republican control of the Senate was widely expected going into Election Day, but for the GOP to keep its hold on the House would have risked plunging the United States further into a crisis of democracy, emboldening a president already given relatively free rein by a friendly Congress. Trump would have no need to worry about being held in check, and a unified Republican legislature could have attacked the ongoing investigations into the president and his associates even more aggressively than it already has. The Democrats avoided this disaster on Election Day, and more: The party picked up 29 House seats and counting, with a wide margin in the popular vote.
This may fit the criteria for a “blue wave,” but the air of deflation and disappointment among opponents of the president in the hours after the Democrats clinched control of the House points to something real. Trumpism was not resoundingly rejected on Tuesday night. If some candidates affiliated with the president lost their races—like Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and former head of the Trump administration’s voter-fraud commission, who failed to win his state’s governor’s seat—others who adopted his tactics were successful. Whatever defines Trump’s political movement, it has a constituency in the voters who turned out to vote for Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, who emphasized his support for Trump and whose gubernatorial campaign against Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was consistently tinged with racism. And though Trump’s particular flavor of authoritarianism is something new, Tuesday night also showed that older, all-American threats to democracy are alive and well in this country: Georgia Republican Brian Kemp may well have eked out a victory the state governor’s race over his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, who would have been the nation’s first black female governor, through a systematic program of voter suppression enabled by Kemp’s role as Georgia’s secretary of state.
That said, a Democratic victory in the House matters. The incoming Democratic leadership of various committees has already promised investigations into any number of scandals left relatively untouched by a Republican-led Congress. It says a great deal about how this administration has conducted itself that the list of possible inquiries is extremely long—ranging from the appalling handling of disaster relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, to the various scandals that have roiled the rotating cast of Cabinet members over the course of the president’s 21 months in office, to Trump’s refusal to hand over his tax returns—and any and all of these investigations will play an important constitutional role in reestablishing Congress as a check against the executive branch.
As chairmen of the House Intelligence Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Representatives Devin Nunes and Bob Goodlatte have made it their business not just to avoid oversight of the president but to affirmatively clog up the works of the ongoing investigations into Trump, harassing Justice Department officials in a seeming quest to provide ever more grist for the pro-Trump conspiracy-theory mill. That will end under Democratic leadership: Adam Schiff, the likely incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has already promised to dig into a number of ongoing questions about the president’s conduct and the Trump campaign’s relationship to Russia. And when soon-to-be House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler quickly indicated his intention to investigate the circumstances of Sessions’s firing come January, Schiff hinted the same.
Writing on Twitter in the wake of Sessions’s departure, the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted that “Trump allies are deeply perplexed by his move against Sessions, given that it all but guarantees an investigation by House judiciary.” Further reporting later in the evening fleshed out the story. According to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, Trump’s decision to finally remove his embattled attorney general was likely precipitated by Republican gains in the Senate on Tuesday night. Consolidation of GOP control in Congress’s upper chamber, along with the absence of Trump critics like John McCain and Jeff Flake from the Republican caucus, will make it much easier for the president to confirm a permanent replacement for Sessions. And this appears to have been at the forefront of Trump’s mind on election night.
This is the threat to the rule of law posed by the country’s failure to resoundingly reject Trumpism, posed as starkly as possible. A Democratic House can investigate Trump. A Democratic House Judiciary Committee can even initiate impeachment proceedings against him—and would likely be the recipient of any report prepared by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (During Watergate, Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski delivered an impeachment “road map” to the House Judiciary Committee, which helped guide the committee in developing articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.)
But the Republican hold on the Senate means that Trump is still emboldened. The strengthening of that grip reportedly gave him the push he needed to finally fire Sessions. The morning after the Democrats clinched control of the House, he threatened on Twitter to instigate investigations in the Senate of Democratic activity in the House if the Democrats were to push for inquiries. (It is far from clear whether any Senate Republican committee chairs would comply.) And while impeachment is a long way away, it is hard to imagine a Republican Senate under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell convicting a president whose presence in office enables the party to speedily confirm round after round of judges, strengthening a conservative hold on the federal judiciary that will last for decades.
Despite what Trump tweeted in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Tuesday night was not a “Big Victory” for the president. But neither was it a symbolic toppling of the would-be autocrat’s statue.
Speculation has ramped up in recent days over what to expect post-midterms from a special counsel’s office freed from the ostensible constraints of Justice Department guidance against investigative activity that could influence an election. Mueller has been quiet so far, even after authority over his investigation shifted from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker in the wake of Sessions’s dismissal. It’s impossible to know what’s coming next in the Russia investigation and what the special counsel might have planned in the event that Trump pushes Whitaker to fire Mueller or curtail his probe—the unstated motive behind Sessions’s ouster.
Citizens and commentators tended in the early days of the Mueller investigation to hail the special counsel as some kind of mythic hero or silver bullet. Mueller had only to release his next indictment, his latest evidence of obstruction or of the Trump campaign’s coordination with the Russian government, and the nightmare would be over. This has not, obviously, turned out to be the case. As court documents have slowly trickled out of the special counsel’s office over the course of the year and a half since Mueller’s appointment, the president’s approval has remained remarkably steady and his hold over congressional Republicans has gone nowhere.
The question has always been not only what Mueller might discover but also how Americans will react to that discovery—whether Trump has sufficiently primed his supporters to reject uncomfortable information as “fake news” so as to insulate him from any political consequences of potential scandal. That question is more important than ever in light of Tuesday’s election returns. Finding a way out of this extended national catastrophe requires defeating Trumpism as a political project, an even harder task given the weight of gerrymandering and voter suppression on the shoulders of the most likely anti-Trump voters. This is the work of politics—what the philosopher Max Weber referred to as the “slow and strong boring of hard boards.” It will be a long grind forward.
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