Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate's senior Republican, assured reporters that special counsel Robert Mueller is "not gonna be fired by the president." Asked why, Hatch replied, "Because I know him. He knows that'd be a stupid move, as far I'm concerned."
"Stupid move" is a vast understatement to describe the possible firing of Mueller, whose accelerating investigation into Russian interference in last year's election has already produced two indictments against former Trump aides and a guilty plea from a third. "Stupid move" applies as well to the idea that Trump would pardon those defendants or anyone else caught up in Mueller's net.
But just because a decision is stupid does not mean Trump won't make it. His raging egotism and reckless impulsiveness render him capable of any move, at any time, no matter what his advisers or Republican lawmakers like Hatch say.
That's exactly why Sen. Bob Corker warned that the president could lead the country "on the path to World War III." And that's why Trump is fully capable of firing Mueller, or pardoning his targets, and plunging the country into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Moreover, the president is being egged on by a rising chorus of right-wing activists and commentators to get rid of Mueller before he brings down the entire administration. Just one example: Jeanine Pirro, host of "Justice with Judge Jeanine" on Fox News, declared that Mueller "must be fired immediately." And we know the president listens obsessively to Fox and is heavily influenced by what he hears.
Now is the time for Republicans who value the rule of law to say as loudly and as clearly as possible: We will not tolerate any attempt by Trump to subvert Mueller's investigation. We will place loyalty to our country ahead of loyalty to the president or our party.
One tangible option: Get behind two bills, both with Republican co-sponsors, that would severely limit Trump's ability to fire Mueller without cause. After a hearing in September, the measures have languished, but a serious attempt to move them forward will send a strong signal to the White House: Don't even think about it.
Clearly they are thinking about it. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the president has "no intention or plan" to fire Mueller. But that's a pathetically weak statement that obviously leaves plenty of room for the president to change his mind.
White House lawyer Jay Sekulow added, "I haven't had a conversation with the president about pardons or pardoning individuals." That's another evasion that deliberately fails to rule out pardons in the future.
Another White House lawyer, Ty Cobb, who has been counseling Trump to cooperate with Mueller, did tell the Washington Post that "there are no discussions and there is no consideration being given to terminating Mueller." But anyone who thinks Trump will always take his lawyer's advice has learned absolutely nothing about this president, especially with his conservative base loudly demanding Mueller's head.
The Wall Street Journal, like many pro-Trumpers, has bought into a discredited conspiracy theory that says the FBI somehow helped promote a dossier, paid for by the Clinton campaign, which tapped Russian sources to defame Trump. And since Mueller once headed the FBI, concludes the Journal, "he could best serve the country by resigning to prevent further political turmoil over that conflict of interest."
CNN reports that Steve Bannon, Trump's former adviser, is urging the president to "cut funding" for Mueller's operation and "slow down document production in court." Another Trump confidant, Roger Stone, tells The New York Times that neutralizing Mueller is Trump's "only chance for survival."
All these comments, and many more, point to one conclusion: The Trump White House is truly petrified of Mueller. And what the president does next could be deeply dangerous. Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, was correct in telling the Post, "We are in a real testing time for democracy."
Republicans have to understand the stakes here, and they have role models to follow. During Watergate, Sen. Howard Baker helped to bring President Nixon to justice. In 1950, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith denounced Sen. Joe McCarthy for fomenting "a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear."
History honors Baker and Smith for their courage. It has forgotten the cowards who refused to speak out. History will judge today's Republicans on how they respond to an unhinged and unqualified president.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.