President Trump may no longer be on The Apprentice, but his infamous “You’re fired!” line may still come in handy. Of the many difficult and important decisions that President Trump has to make, one weighing heavily on his mind- and the public’s minds- as of recent is whether or not to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
A little background: Mueller, a former Director of the FBI, was appointed as special counsel in May of 2017 to oversee an investigation into alleged intervention in the 2016 presidential election (Tanfani, 2017). The investigation looks into possible interference by foreign actors, specifically exploring the relationships between Russian officials and the Trump campaign team. Several members of Trump’s team have already been charged with allegations, including Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. The latest information on the investigation was a statement issued by the Department of Justice on February 16th, 2018. Mueller indicted 13 Russian officials and 3 Russian organizations for alleged election interference, conspiracy, and fraud (Scannell, 2018). This confirmed the belief that many held concerning Russia’s involvement, however Trump himself stood by his stance that his campaign team did not collude with these officials.
Further news recently broke that Trump attempted to fire Mueller last June and was concerned that the counsel held “conflicts of interest” (Schmidt, 2018). Trump was unsuccessful in his endeavor to dismiss the attorney. Many were concerned that firing Mueller would implicate the president even further in the election scandal. The action also has the potential to spark significant backlash from the public sphere and elected officials on either side.
So how does this relate to democracy? Scholars have identified different causes of democratic backsliding to include, among many other things, the elimination of checks and balances, manipulation of electoral laws, and distortion of the judicial system. I find that all of these potentially dangerous causes of democratic backsliding are subtly present in the Mueller investigation.
Firstly, firing Mueller would eliminate the checks and balances system of democracy that the U.S. is known throughout the world for. The Department of Justice establishes specific procedures for special counsels and outlines the exact reasons why they may be fired. These reasons do not include the conflicts of interest that Trump listed. There is also a stipulation in place that a special counsel can only be fired by the Attorney General. Since AG Jeff Sessions has recused himself from all campaign-related activity, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein would have to be the one to fire Mueller instead of Trump (Schmidt, 2018). In their article “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg discuss how eliminating checks, such as electoral laws and legitimacy, directly endangers a democracy. Any action that impedes voting or candidates can lead to instances of democratic backsliding. Firing Mueller would eliminate the checks and balances system by ignoring this designation of management.
The drama surrounding the Mueller investigation could also be viewed as a cause of democratic backsliding through the manipulation of electoral laws. As of last week, the official investigation has concluded that the 2016 presidential election was indeed effected by outside actors. In addition to the foreign officials charged by Mueller, several members of the campaign team have also been charged with false statements and conspiracy against the United States. Firing Mueller may incite more concern surrounding the campaign team’s relationships with those members who have been indicted as well as other Russian officials. The ongoing investigation is purposefully slow and thorough. Trump has already fired several members of the Justice Department (Schmidt, 2018). It would be unwise of him to take action that may implicate him or the White House in stopping the very investigation against Trump’s own team. There has also been a lot of publicity surrounding Trump’s relationship with Putin, and his advisors’ relationships with some of his top consultants. This has brought the issue of electoral laws even more prominently into the spotlight. It is a serious allegation to consider a foreign country as an intervening force in a domestic election (especially the exact country that seems to already have close, personal ties to the winner of said election).
Lastly, the decision to fire Mueller would be a distortion of the judicial system as a whole. Incidences such as the Saturday Night Massacre during the Nixon administration have illustrated that a president taking risky actions in order to impede legal investigations can ignite an enormous amount of criticism from the public and other political officials. The manipulation of an impartial investigation is in no way unprecedented. However, it is usually taken negatively by those attempting to determine the results of the investigation and those who are invested in these results. The direct interference of the president in a matter concerning the Department of Justice would enrage Republicans that have long touted the precedents of legal proceedings. Democrats would also see this as a huge, not to mention illegal, overstep of the Republican administration.
Despite this backlash, firing Mueller would send a strong message that the Trump administration will not tolerate anyone who dares challenge their authority. It would also implicate further controversy within the administration, continued confusion within the Republican party, and even the possibility for a discussion surrounding impeachment to begin (Schmidt, 2018).
The possibility that Mueller may be fired and the drama surrounding the investigation into the 2016 electoral interference are foreboding signs of democratic backslide. These instances include the elimination of checks and balances, manipulation of electoral laws, and distortion of the judicial system, all leading to the rise of autocracy through populist forces. However, it is not absolutely certain that there would be backlash from Mueller’s dismissal, and it seems very likely based on past precedent that Trump would do everything in his power to turn the public scrutiny towards others and away from himself. As the investigation continues, Mueller will have the close attention of the President and the public.
Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017.“How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working paper.
Scannell, Kara, et al. “Mueller indicts 13 Russian nationals over 2016 election interference.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Feb. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/02/16/politics/mueller-russia-indictments-election-interference/index.html.
Schmidt, Michael S., and Maggie Haberman. “Trump Ordered Mueller Fired, but Backed Off When White House Counsel Threatened to Quit.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/us/politics/trump-mueller-special-counsel-russia.html.
Tanfani, Joseph, et al. “Special counsel named to head Russia investigation; White House caught by surprise.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 17 May 2017, www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-former-fbi-director-robert-mueller-1495058507-htmlstory.html.
Photo Credits to Rantt Media.