Verbal red lines have become all too common in American politics. They’re declared against foreign adversaries as readily as they are in budget battles. And in most cases, the line drawers redraw their boundaries when they are traversed and action is required.
That’s partly why the barrage of warnings senators and representatives are sending to President Trump, in defense of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, can inspire only modest confidence. To fire Mueller would be “political suicide,” they’ve warned. It would be “a disaster” and he should be allowed to “do his job,” according to others. But for all the polite warnings, only a handful of bipartisan senators and representatives are trying to prevent a new Saturday Night Massacre legislatively. For now, the main defense of the rule of law remains an implied red line.
That line, narrowly drawn around a single man, is insufficient to uphold the rule of law when challenged by the nation’s chief executive. Trump’s latest Twitter outbursts reflect the various vectors at his disposal to halt, limit, or otherwise undermine the integrity of Mueller’s investigation into Moscow’s attacks on the American political system and the possible involvement of the Trump campaign.
The president has been laying the rhetorical groundwork to sack Mueller for months, questioning his impartiality and the appropriateness of his probe, while reportedly calling on White House staff to remove him, an order they have so far refused. His attacks on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller, now follow the same pattern. With his usual unabashed inconsistency, Trump alleges that Rosenstein should be replaced for signing the letter justifying former FBI Director James Comey’s firing, which Trump claimed himself to have ordered.
It is true that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein serve at the president’s pleasure, but both are vulnerable to his corrupt instinct for self-preservation, which apparently urges him daily to shutter the investigation. The president’s effort to obstruct justice through removing them is every bit as concerning as his desire to do the same with Mueller. The replacement of either could give the president a willing ally to fire or impede Mueller, or remove federal special-counsel regulations so that Trump can do so himself.
Dismissing Sessions or Rosenstein would be a brazen effort to influence or impede the investigation and shield the president from accountability under the law, especially in the wake of the recent raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and mounting legal pressure on his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The president’s false pretenses for taking action against Sessions and Rosenstein are transparently malicious. They represent the most recent phase of his campaign to undermine the rule of law. It’s not that there aren’t valid concerns with Jeff Sessions’s fitness to serve as attorney general, including his own reluctantly reported contacts with Russian officials. There are. But Trump’s concern is with no such matter, but rather with Sessions’s and Rosenstein’s refusal to bend to his corruptive will.
Trump’s attack on the rule of law and the essential institutions of American democracy is not a partisan issue, a contest between the left and the right. He is forcing a fight for the integrity of our system of self-rule, for our liberty.
Around the world, anti-democratic leaders pursue two agendas before all else: undermine the free press and erode the independence of law enforcement and the judiciary. Trump has done both, using the reach and authority of his office to attempt to stifle unfavorable reporting as he attacks investigators, judges, and agencies who might also hold him accountable.
If the federal justice system lacks sufficient independence to use its authority to discover potential crimes of the president or his associates, the chances of ensuring the accountability of the person we elect to that role are severely diminished.
The press offers another avenue through which truth can be revealed, but journalists lack the legal authority often needed to discover hidden wrongdoing, and without law enforcement’s pursuit of facts, journalistic efforts become even more difficult as well. Most importantly, the ability of ordinary Americans to hold their leaders accountable through political processes relies on the healthy functioning of these two sources of information, and is severely impaired by their absence.
Rhetorical red lines alone will not prove a sufficient response to these challenges. Turning back attacks on the independence of the press and law enforcement will require Americans to work together across old divisions, coalescing around the defense of their most essential principles, norms, and institutions.
And elected representatives in Congress can do more than talk. They can act, passing legislation protecting the special-counsel investigation—with a veto proof majority, if necessary—and holding the president accountable for any further efforts to render the federal justice system incapable against him.
If the president removes Sessions or Rosenstein or Mueller, it will be a direct attack on the integrity of the special-counsel investigation and the primacy of the American people and the rule of law. The Constitution provides a remedy for such a gross breach of duty: impeachment. If Trump forges ahead on his present course, it will be up to Americans to make it clear to their elected representatives that they no longer have any alternative but to remove the president from office.