It is difficult to predict actions of President Donald Trump. After his explosive interview, however, with New York Times journalists Maggie Haberman, Peter Baker, and Michael Schmidt, published last Wednesday, it does appear, that there is an increasing likelihood that Trump will soon fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
In the interview, Trump stated that he would regard Mueller’s investigation as having crossed a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia. Trump has been behaving as if there is a bombshell in his family finances, and he will certainly assert a different definition than the Special Counsel’s office as to what constitutes a legitimate subject of inquiry.
So the firing of Mr. Mueller by Trump is inevitable. In order to do this, Trump would first fire both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. This will set up a Constitutional crisis that will far exceed that of the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October, 1973, in which the then President Richard M. Nixon fired not only Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox, but also the then Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus in the process.
Nixon was a man of basic respect for American traditional institutions of politics and government, while Trump, an authoritarian to the core, is openly contemptuous of them. The Donald is no Edmund Burke. Nothing is beyond the pale for him, including the possibility of pardoning himself and outright defiance of federal judicial orders and decrees.
The prospective Mueller firing will also have an impact on Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate. These individuals, by and large, have refrained from making any accusations of misconduct in office against the President. A Mueller firing, however, will result in a tidal wave of negative reaction against Trump among Democrats, Independents, and non-Trump base Republicans, creating severe 2018 reelection problems for Republican House and Senate incumbents. At the same time, those Republican incumbents who repudiate Trump may face primary battles from Trump-base Republicans.
And New Jersey is a perfect example of where a Mueller firing may pose a most severe political dilemma for three incumbent Republican House members: Rodney Frelinghuysen, Tom MacArthur, and Leonard Lance. All three are presently targeted by national Democratic Congressional leadership for defeat in 2018.
Up until now, I have felt that the Democratic threat to Frelinghuysen’s reelection has been grossly overstated. Since he became a member of the House of Representatives in 1995, Rodney Frelinghuysen has been a model of superb competency, unimpeachable ethics, towering achievement, and profound decency. As Chair of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, he is a major asset to New Jersey in its desperate search for federal aid, particularly in the area of transportation assistance.
Frelinghuysen is very well known in a positive way to his constituents, not only for his House record but also for the historic sterling reputation of the Frelinghuysen family and his prior excellent service as a member of the New Jersey Assembly, in which he also served as Assembly Appropriations Chair, arguably the best in that role over the past fifty years. Barring a Trump firing of Mueller, Rodney Frelinghuysen would be an overwhelming favorite for reelection, regardless of wishful Democratic thinking.
Tom MacArthur is the closest of the three personally to Donald Trump, who assisted him by an appearance at a highly successful fundraiser earlier this year. His sponsorship of controversial amendments to the House TrumpCare bill created controversy for himself among a substantial segment of his constituents.
Nevertheless, the health care debate does not appear at present to have endangered MacArthur’s reelection prospects. Indeed, he impressed many of his constituents and the media with his willingness to meet with the voters in a very pro-Democratic area of his district.
MacArthur has had a scandal free career in both the public and corporate sectors. His Burlington/Ocean district has historically reelected Republican incumbents. With his excellent communication skills and financial resources, he would normally be a solid favorite for reelection.
Leonard Lance’s district is not as Republican as the districts of Rodney Frelinghuysen and Tom MacArthur. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton carried the district in 2008 and 2016, respectively.
Still, Lance until now has remained the definite favorite for reelection against potential Democratic opponents, although less certain than either Frelinghuysen or MacArthur. His vote against TrumpCare in 2017 has served to distinguish himself favorably from Trump, who is anathema to the great majority of the New Jersey electorate. His excellent reputation for ethics, command of issues, and independence has also enhanced his stature among his constituents.
All this favorable outlook for the reelection prospects for Frelinghuysen, MacArthur, and Trump becomes questionable, however, if Trump fires Mueller. The key question for New Jersey political pundits is whether any or all of these three would then repudiate Trump.
My guess is that Lance certainly would. He has no key party or Congressional leadership post at risk if he does. To be sure, a Lance repudiation of Trump would certainly result in his facing a primary challenge from a Trump loyalist. But his failure to do so would almost certainly result in his general election defeat.
I also believe that Frelinghuysen would repudiate Trump as well. Frelinghuysen is the ultimate Edmund Burkean figure of New Jersey politics – a person with enormous devotion to the sanctity of institutions, law, norms, and process. A Trump firing of Mueller would offend Frelinghuysen’s core values. He demonstrated tremendous personal courage in his wartime military service in Vietnam. Obviously, he has the political courage to stand up to a law-defying Donald Trump. And he would easily defeat any primary challenge from a Trump supporter.
I am not as sure that MacArthur would. Although Tom is a person of unquestionable integrity, he has had, as previously noted, strong personal and political ties to Trump and is closer to him than any member of the New Jersey Congressional delegation. His failure to denounce a Trump firing of Mueller certainly would strengthen the viability of any Democratic challenger for his seat in 2018.
There is an ominous historical precedent that does cast a cloud over the reelection chances of Frelinghuysen, MacArthur, and Lance. The aforesaid Saturday Night Massacre of 1973 and Nixon’s subsequent departure from office resulted in disaster for GOP Congressional incumbents throughout America, particularly in New Jersey where four GOP House incumbents of genuine stature lost their seats: John Hunt lost to future governor Jim Florio, Charles Sandman lost to Bill Hughes, Joseph Maraziti lost to Helen Stevenson Meyner, and William Widnall lost to Andrew Maguire.
The precedent of the election of 1974 will remain a genuine concern to Rodney Frelinghuysen, Tom MacArthur, and Leonard Lance as they head into Campaign 2018.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.