The death of Senator John McCain throws into relief a new and even more alarming phase of the crisis facing American democracy. McCain was one of the few Republican senators willing to publicly warn Donald Trump of the bright lines that he must not cross.
Last week, as the latest successful prosecutions of Trump associates connected more dots between the criminal misconduct of his underlings and the president personally, we all waited for Republican leaders to distance themselves from Trump and to repeat warnings that Trump must not attempt to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions or his deputy Rod Rosenstein, much less special counsel Robert Mueller.
But few such declarations were forthcoming. On the contrary, Sen. Chuck Grassley actually walked back a previous red line warning.
Grassley, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared last summer, seconded by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, that he would not hold hearings to confirm a new attorney general if Sessions were fired.
Now, with Trump working himself into an anti-Sessions frenzy. Grassley says he could make time for confirmation hearings.
After a couple of days of Trump hunkering down and seeming off his game, the deafening Republican silence served as a signal for Trump to pursue his usual strategy of doubling down ― this time in an even more reckless way. Trump intensified his attacks on the very legitimacy of the criminal justice system for having the temerity to investigate and prosecute his cronies.
It has become conventional to refer to Trump and his gang as grifters — small-time con artists who have somehow ascended to the most powerful office in the world. The description fits Trump all too well, but as more than one commentator has observed in light of Trump’s latest outbursts, maybe that description is too modest. A better description is mobster.
In his comments on Sessions, on his former fixer Michael Cohen and on his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump reverted to an idiom familiar to viewers of “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos.” This is not about criminal wrongdoing, it’s about loyalty. Who is a rat, who flips, and who courageously refused to break under pressure from cops and prosecutors.
Sessions, according to Trump, is a disaster because he was supposed to be loyal; instead he is enforcing the law and defending the institution of the Justice Department. How outrageous!
The entire framing of who is loyal and who is flipping is of course the vocabulary of a guilty man. If Trump, as he keeps insisting, were innocent of the allegations of criminal corruption and of colluding with the Russians to steal the 2016 election, he would not have to worry about who was flipping; he would not have pressured prosecutors like James Comey to take a dive on his behalf.
Keep in mind, all this is from the president of the United States, sworn to uphold the law and the Constitution. But Trump is more than willing to take down America if that’s what it takes to save his own neck.
That should not be a surprise. What continues to stun is the degree to which the Republican Congress is willing to let him.
And so the stakes have been raised one more time. There will be one winner and one loser in the endgame. Either American democracy will win, or Trump will win.
For now, Republicans seem to be proceeding less on the basis of what is needed to prevent a deeper slide into corrupt tyranny and more on the basis of Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning to the signers of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or surely we will all hang separately.”
But of course it is one thing to vow unity in the face of peril in order to create a republic ― and quite another to pledge common allegiance to a thug who is destroying it.
As the waters keep rising around Trump and he becomes even more unhinged, he will be more and more tempted to fire Sessions, then Rosenstein and then Mueller.
To head off a Saturday Night Massacre, those Republicans who have been contributing an outpouring of fatuous tributes to the integrity and courage of John McCain should draw on his example.
They should intensify their warnings to Trump to stop trashing the American system of criminal justice, and to keep his hands off the Mueller investigation. Perhaps the memory of McCain will give the Republicans a moment of pause and shame.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.