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Why Mitch McConnell Is Willing to Throw Mueller to the Wolves

Jay Willis
Remember Merrick Garland? The Senate majority leader has pulled off this stunt before.

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell was asked if he plans to bring to the Senate floor a bipartisan bill that would statutorily prohibit President Trump from terminating special counsel Robert Mueller, the man charged with investigating him. McConnell, who at this point has been analogized to every comic book supervillain and every known species of turtle, acted as if this were the most ridiculous proposition he'd ever heard. "That's not necessary," he scoffed, blinking furiously. "I don't think the the president is going to do that. And just as a practical matter, even if we passed it, why would he sign it?"

There are good reasons for a legislative body to pass a bill despite the threat of a veto, if it were so inclined. It could, for example, do so to send a message about their view on the limits of presidential power. It could use the bill to make its case to voters about what the law should be, and leave it to the president to deal with the political fallout associated with using the veto power in such a blatantly self-interested manner. McConnell knows these things, but still stared helplessly at Neil Cavuto as if he were physically shackled to the chair in which he sat. "I'm the one who decides what we take to the floor. That's my responsibility as the majority leader," he declared. "We will not be having this on the floor of the Senate."

McConnell's position—that he doesn't believe Trump will fire Mueller, and that therefore taking action to prevent it would be bad—is a facially absurd one, roughly akin to removing the seat belts from your cab driver's car because you are confident in his abilities behind the wheel. But the only thing about which Mitch McConnell has ever cared is consolidating power in his Republican Party. It doesn't matter to him who the president is, or what they do in the Oval Office, as long as they rubber-stamp the bills he places on their desk. If the answer to those questions is, respectively, "a racist reality TV star" and "obstruct justice with the tacit approval of a GOP-controlled legislature," he can work with that.

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Political pragmatism, however, isn't the only thing motivating this refusal to head off a constitutional crisis. Remember 2016, when McConnell refused to give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland the courtesy of a hearing, asserting without a shred of evidence that the next president should be allowed to fill that vacancy? At the time, this looked like a wild, Hail Mary-attempt to prevent President Obama from fulfilling his constitutional duties, and many idiots predicted that offering such a blatantly bad-faith argument would prompt Americans to punish the GOP at the polls. McConnell, though, saw preserving the Court's ideological balance as a cause around which his fractured-at-the-time party could rally. Even if that effort hadn't proved as successful as it did, the stakes were too high for him to do anything else.

The same is true today. If McConnell honestly believed that this bill isn't "necessary" because Trump won't fire Mueller, then at the very least, there would be no harm in allowing the Senate to vote on it. But he knows that Trump might do it, both because the investigation seems to be penetrating the president's inner circle, and also because the president lies all the time. Republicans plan to use the Russia probe and the prospect of impeachment to motivate the base to turn out, and for the sake of his party's agenda, McConnell has to preserve Trump's power to act in the meantime.

The majority leader is also warily keeping tabs on the usual gaggle of Roy Moore-esque goons who, if they were to win their primaries, could threaten the GOP's chances of winning toss-up seats in the general election. Democrats are going to attack McConnell and the Republican Party no matter what, of course. But if at this critical juncture he were to bring to the floor a bill that limits Trump's ability to fight back against Sean Hannity's "Mueller crime family", far-right voices could excoriate him for this capitulation, too. Doing something that could imperil the presidency in what may be the final eight months of unified Republican government is a risk that he cannot take.

Mitch McConnell knows that his party is in danger in November. His refusal to protect Robert Mueller is another high-risk, high-reward bet that the voters who applaud him for this stunt will outnumber those who are disgusted by it. He was right once. He might not be as lucky this time around.