You've seen those TV public-service ads many times. If — heaven forbid — a fire strikes your home or apartment building in the middle of the night, make sure that you have a plan for getting yourself and your family out safely. That means not just mapping the escape routes but conducting the occasional drill to make sure everyone is on the same page. Sure, it's a drag to hit the front pavement in your bathrobe on a chilly night for a false alarm, but the alternatives to good preparedness are unthinkable.
So what if it's not your house but the very idea of a (small-d) democratic United States that's ablaze? What if at, say, 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 22, as millions of Americans are loading up their trunks with presents for the drive to Grandma's house, or spiking their bowls of egg nog to prepare for a three-day Christmas weekend, President Trump decides to execute what would be the political Nightmare Before Christmas?
What if, after this long pounding of the faux outrage drums from his right-wing echo chamber on the Fox News Channel and elsewhere, the president either fires special counsel Robert Mueller — heading the criminal probe into possible collusion between Russia and Trump's 2016 campaign, obstruction of justice, and related matters — or takes actions meant to neuter the Mueller investigation?
Then what? Here's the good news: Beth Sweet of Chester County, Pa. — and thousands of people like Sweet — already have that middle-of-the-night fire drill for democracy all mapped out. Sweet is a leader for the western Philadelphia exurbs of a nationwide effort called "Nobody Is Above the Law — Mueller Firing Rapid Response," a project led by MoveOn.org and endorsed by other left-leaning political groups.
Sweet — who's already helped lead one protest this week, against the GOP tax bill, which drew more than 100 people outside Rep. Ryan Costello's West Chester office on Monday — admitted that "people are getting burned out because this is a big fight and every day there is something new." Yet she predicted the firing of Mueller, if it happens, could draw hundreds to downtown West Chester, that "people will be charged up." Nationally, more than 100,000 people have already signed up for this hypothetical protest, and the actual event could draw far more.
The idea behind the protest — which activists have been planning since July — is fairly simple: If Trump fires Mueller and it's after 2 p.m., protesters will stage a mass rally against the move at noon the next day, and if takes place before 2 p.m., the rallying time is 5 p.m. that night, Daylight Savings Time be damned. The rallying spots include Thomas Paine Plaza opposite City Hall in Philadelphia, the old courthouse on High Street in West Chester, and literally hundreds of other locations from coast-to-coast. If the president decides to emulate Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" and fire Mueller as darkness descends on Dec. 23, the organizers must hope for a boisterous turnout on Christmas Eve.
It definitely wouldn't be a silent night.
It's safe to say that never in recent history has so much planning gone into protesting something that hasn't happened yet, and may never happen. But if you've been paying close attention these last few days, something is afoot. On
American state-run television the Fox News Channel, what started as a whisper that the Mueller probe might somehow be ethically compromised has risen to a scream, driven home this weekend when Trump adviser and Wawa-loving Jersey Girl Kellyanne Conway appeared on FNC to denounce the probe under the shock banner "A Coup in America?"
Fox's most popular host, Sean Hannity, has referred to Mueller as "the head of the snake," more of the kind of rhetoric one might associate with totalitarian regimes than the United States of America, while FNC's Saturday night host Jeanine Pirro, a Trump friend and confidante who was a county district attorney in his home state of New York, has urged that FBI agents and others associated with Mueller's probe not just be fired but led away in handcuffs.
What's inspired this frenzy? Several small-to-middling occurrences and a few missteps, none more serious than a key FBI investigator caught texting his prosecutor girlfriend his personal opinion that Trump would be "a disaster" for this country (which…oh, nevermind…); even though FBI agents are actually allowed to voice personal opinions, vote, etc., just like you, the overcautious Mueller yanked the FBI's Peter Strzok from his team and the Justice Department inspector general is probing whether any bias affected the investigation. Added to this swirl of overheated allegations is anger that Mueller's team used a governmental back channel to legally obtain emails sent by key members of Trump's presidential transition — a weird complaint after then-candidate Trump, at a public news conference in July 2016, pleaded with Russia to illegally steal and release the emails of his political foe, Hillary Clinton.
There's nothing wrong with getting to the bottom of incidents like the Strzok texts, but let's be clear about what is really happening here. There's a coordinated conspiracy involving the right-wing media universe that was created in the ashes of Watergate, working with zealously loyal members of Congress and top officials in the Trump administration, to inflate a few minor incidents into something they want to use to shut down one of the most important investigations in American history: Whether our presidential election was warped by a foreign influence campaign — one that may have occurred with knowledge or actual help from the winning candidate.
How can one agent's texts and the related bric-a-brac possibly compare with Team Trump's numerous contacts with Russian officials and their intermediaries, with the flow of stolen Democratic emails and documents that came from Russia with love just days after those meetings began, with the extensive Russian social-media campaign to sow U.S. divisions and help Trump win, with the proposed changes to the Republican platform and then to American policy toward the Ukrainian conflict and Russian sanctions coming from Team Trump, with the repeated lies from top Trump aides and family members about all of the above, and finally a cover-up with roots in the Oval Office?
There is no comparison. Any Trump move against Mueller would signal the end of an independent judiciary and any remaining notions that a president is subject to American law, in addition to the shock that an independent media and a corrupted Congress have no power to stop this. It would mean the end of truth and democratic ideals as the lingua franca of an American Experiment that will have imploded in failure.
Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who was fired by Trump in January after her warnings about his now-convicted-felon national security adviser Michael Flynn, said it best. "That's why Democratic and Republican administrations alike, at least since Watergate, have honored that the rule of law requires a strict separation between the Justice Department and the White House on criminal cases and investigations," Yates wrote Tuesday in USA Today. "This wall of separation is what ensures the public can have confidence that the criminal process is not being used as a sword to go after one's political enemies or as a shield to protect those in power. It's what separates us from an autocracy."
The stakes are so high that there are some signs Trump might back away from an outright Mueller firing. In fact, the president said as much Sunday night — even though he's gone back on his word dozens of times since becoming president just 11 months ago. Some analysts believe Trump is looking for ways to cripple the Mueller probe without firing Mueller (which would require help from top officials at Justice), such as firing the man that Mueller now reports to, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and then having Rosenstein's replacement clamp down on Mueller. Or he could pardon Flynn, who has already pleaded guilty, with an assumption he has a story to tell about Team Trump and Russia, and others in the administration.
Any of these things would be the real coup — proof that the president and those around him can commit crimes and get away with them. That's not lost on an activist like Sweet, 47, who's been somewhat active in Democratic affairs in East Goshen Township but who had never attended a protest before Trump's inauguration and since has built ties to Indivisible chapters and other anti-Trump groups. She said sacking Mueller might be the way that Trump once behaved as a real estate executive "but that's not the way democracy works." And while massive street protests might not change anything in the short run, she hopes these events are building pressure on elected officials to act.
If that means Christmas Eve on the chilly pavement of West Chester with a placard clutched in her hand, that's OK with Sweet — one woman with a fire-safety plan for American democracy. "If I have to spend it with my new friends and my protest sign, that's all right," she said. "This is life now — the new normal."