To begin with: This was not the Saturday Night Massacre.
Donald Trump fired a holdover acting attorney general, who would have been gone soon anyway once Trump’s nominated choice is confirmed and sworn in, because she would not support a Trump policy in court.
Richard Nixon, in October 1973, ordered his own attorney general to fire a special prosecutor who was investigating the president, his White House and campaign staff; the attorney general resigned rather than fire the prosecutor, and then Nixon fired the next-in-line, after which the third-in-line was sworn in as the new acting attorney general and carried out the president’s orders.
What Trump did was orders of magnitude less of a shocking assault on constitutional government. This was a highly unusual situation – usually, holdovers from the previous administration don’t actively undermine the new administration (in large part because there are rarely similar situations) and Trump was well within his rights to act.
Along with everything else, it’s not wrong at all to say that Trump’s actions, including this one, continue to add to an atmosphere of chaos and an air of disregard for what Trump talked about all through the campaign: law and order. Firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates can be justified. Doing it at night, and issuing an unprofessional statement accusing her of having “betrayed the Department of Justice” did not reassure anyone that the new president respects the constitution.
“Everything else” includes, just on Monday, the White House press secretary trashing State Department officials who signed on to a dissent memo; the news that House Judiciary Committee staffers helped draft the refugee/visa/travel executive action while keeping it secret from their bosses and signing non-disclosure agreements; and a report that Steve Bannon is stifling national security dissent and proper record-keeping within the White House. And probably two or three things I’ve forgotten.
Meanwhile, factionalism within the White House and more broadly among the executive branch (at least the few positions that have been filled so far) so far is at fever pitch, with leaked stories to match, so more coals are constantly being added to the fire. The president himself seems to have no control over his White House at all.
I recommend against anyone guessing how public opinion plays out on any of this. We’ll know soon enough. Some are saying that the Yates confrontation, and the refugee/travel issue in general, is exactly what Bannon wants. But that doesn’t mean he’ll get the reaction he expects. All we know for now is that no president has ever been this unpopular this early in his term, and it’s not close.
What is supposed to happen in these situations, when the White House is flailing, is for senior members of the party to step in and make sure the president gets his act together. That’s what happened after the Iran-Contra affair, when Sen. Howard Baker was brought in as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. It’s basically what happened after Bill Clinton’s poorly organized first year and a half, when Leon Panetta took on the same job.
That pressure doesn’t always have to be applied publicly; after all, it’s in the interest of all Republicans to have a functional administration. Or if it’s public, it’s indirect, with names (Mitch Daniels? Rob Portman?) suddenly starting to be mentioned by loyal partisans.
Republicans have plenty of leverage here. If necessary, U.S. senators could threaten to stop confirming Trump’s cabinet; Republican members of both houses of Congress could threaten to hold hearings on any number of Trump scandals. They could even threaten to force him to turn over his tax returns.
And all they would be asking for — should be asking for — is for Trump to allow a real manager who knows how the government works to step in and help him, and to get rid of some of the people who are harming his presidency.
Sure, they risk the possibility that the Tweeter-in-Chief will lash out at them. And it’s certainly possible that Trump can’t be made to see how badly he needs help.
But there’s no reason to think this gets better by itself. A whole lot of Republicans in Congress (and Republican governors and more) absolutely know that.
Reach Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.