The annual lists of the Year’s Best Books are a rite of literary journalism — a vacuous rite, if you ask me, by which critics make themselves the shills of the publishing trade. (Not that I don’t participate as eagerly as anyone else!)
’Tis the season, too, for shopping guides. COMMENTARY herewith offers a different kind of shopping guide. COMMENTARY writers and friends of the magazine were asked to recommend a novel for holiday buying or reading — their personal favorite, their personal secret. It’s an eclectic list (I’ve only read five of the titles myself), but every book on the list is something you will want to hunt down as quickly as possible. Supplies are going fast! Remember: there are only 17 shopping days left until Christmas! Here is a good place to start your wish list for that hard-to-please reader in your family or your bed!
The books are arranged alphabetically by author, with the recommender’s name in bold afterwards, followed by his or her comments.
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008). Matthew Ackerman, Middle East Analyst for The David Project and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
Enlightening take on modern India. Great anti-hero narrator with a superb voice. Man Booker prize winner.
A briskly written but sweepingly comprehensive survey of the constitutive vagaries in the human condition: the ebb and flow of empire, the ever-present specter of civilizational decline, the indeterminacy of social progress, and — despite these fundamental challenges — the ability of carefully crafted institutions, designed with careful attention to human imperfection, to preserve knowledge and transcend history. Also the series has spaceships and eventually robots, and is one of the most entertaining reads in existence.
I have a soft spot for this gothic-comic tale of two not-terribly-powerful wizards and the lurking menace they must face. It’s no Lord of the Rings, but it is a confection of horror and whimsy perfect for a fireside evening.
I can’t say anything about the translations into English, but this is quite likely the funniest sad novel I’ve read, in any language. At the novel’s core: the relationship between its first-person narrator — a young boy of Arab descent called Momo — and the elderly Jewish ex-prostitute (also an Auschwitz survivor) who is responsible for his care. I’d read nothing like it before it was assigned in a class 20-plus years ago, and I’ve read nothing like it since.
Gay had the title before a Mormon housewife filched it for her prudish vampires. Owing much to Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCarthy at his bloodiest, Gay’s gorgeously wrought novel is a human-horror story so depraved it will remind you why you’re afraid of the dark.
Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005). Seth Mandel, Assistant Editor of COMMENTARY:
As we mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union while Russians are protesting in the streets of Moscow by the thousands to call for free and fair elections, Grushin’s first novel has a new relevance. Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, the title character, gave up a life as a talented underground artist for the mindless comfort of an apparatchik’s career, the salary it comes with, and the stability of having a family with his beautiful wife. But the plot takes place as Gorbachev begins unintentionally deconstructing the rigid society Sukhanov gave up his dreams for, his family emotionally and physically abandons him, and he is haunted near to the point of madness by his past, as it comes rushing back in the form of vivid daydreams and the excruciating sense of nostalgia and regret that he can no longer hide from.
Haunting and touching in equal measure. As in Remains of the Day, Ishiguro once again creates characters who live in a world not of their making, but who are forced by circumstance to make choices that reveal the complexity of the contemporary moral landscape. In this case, Ishiguro places his story in a not-too-distant future in which medical science has made it possible to prolong life indefinitely for some, but at the cost of devaluing it for the unfortunate others upon whom the scheme rests. The prose is sparing but packs an emotional wallop uncommon in today’s fiction.
Dave Kattenburg, Foxy Lady: Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea (2011). Bethany Mandel, Social Media Associate for COMMENTARY:
It’s a book about nine Westerners who stumbled into Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era, and who met an untimely death alongside thousands of Cambodians in the main torture prison. The story follows the author’s journey through four continents as he uncovers the story of the men who died and watches the trial of the man who ran the prison. There’s plenty of books out there that tell the story of Cambodians in the Khmer Rouge time, but this is a relatable story of people who accidentally became part of history in a tragic way.
Kirkwood was the son of silent movie stars Lila Lee and James Kirkwood, Sr., and the novel is a more or less thinly veiled memoir. It is often very funny and sometimes achingly sad. It isn’t easy growing up the son of famous people, who always tend to be self-absorbed, especially if their careers are on the wane. Kirkwood wrote several other novels worth reading including Good Times/Bad Times and P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as the co-author of the book of A Chorus Line.
In 1949 the Canadian poet A.M. Klein went on a fact-finding mission to see what was left of the Jews in Europe, Morocco, and Palestine. The Second Scroll, his only published novel, is a fictional account of such a journey, cast as a modernist epic in a high literary style to transmit the magnitude of the Jewish renewal. We were not present when Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, but Klein feels he was there during an exodus and ingathering of no less consequence. This book is spiritual-intellectual red meat for readers who may have tired of their diets of minimalism, irony, and polymorphous perversity.
György Konrád, The Case Worker (1969), trans. Paul Aston (1974). Patrick Kurp, author of Anecdotal Evidence:
I still remember Irving Howe’s review in the Times. I reread Konrád every few years, including earlier this year. I don’t know a better novel about children, disability, madness, the animal in man. Gorgeously written, even in translation.
In the 16th-century French Pyrenees, a husband returns after an eight-year absence much changed. His wife loves him with joyful passion until she begins to suspect that he is an imposter, and turns against him. A tragedy that could not end otherwise than it does, Lewis’s novel shows that there are some human desires that are stronger than erotic passion — and among them is the desire to remain faithful. (A fuller account is here.)
Candia McWilliam, What to Look For in Winter (2010). Sam Schulman, a contributor to COMMENTARY:
A 53-year-old Scottish novelist begins to lose her sight through blepharospasm — being unable to open one’s eyelids. With three children, all with different last names, of two fathers, and a handful of novels — her presiding genius is Sybille Bedford — she has lived through writing, and reading. Now she can only read books on tape, and she dictates this memoir:
I am six foot tall and afraid of small people.
I am a Scot.
I am an alcoholic.
There is nothing wrong with my eyes.
I am blind.
I cannot lose my temper though I am being helped to. . . .
I exude marriedness and I am alone.
Those are her compass bearings. Here is a typical sentence, describing the contents of her mother’s workbasket: “The pinking shears were so heavy and specific that they lived in a holster in the sewing chest with the button box, the cotton reels and the Kwik-unpik, a natty hook for the slashing open of stitches mainly to ‘let things down,’ or to ‘let things out,’ terms perhaps now unknown outwith the psychotherapeutic context.” One of the great books.
George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (2011). Jonathan S. Tobin, Senior Online Editor of COMMENTARY:
The latest installment in the brilliant fantasy series that inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones. But these novels are not what you’d expect from the genre since they’re beautifully written and filled with fascinating, complex characters.
Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (2002). Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
A Catholic priest who shares my offbeat sense of humor recommended Lamb to me a few Christmases back when we were both lecturing at an army base around the holidays. With tongue-in-cheek, Lamb explores the childhood of Jesus Christ through the eyes of childhood pal Biff. The story is wickedly funny, but also respectful. After a run-in with the Romans in Galilee, Biff and Jesus (or Joshua as he was known) set out on an epic adventure to track down the Three Magi — all adherents of Eastern religions. Their journey takes them to Afghanistan, China, and India, where their interactions not only illuminate Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism — but also answer such age-old questions such as why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.
Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country (1948). Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
Because it’s a book of unusual power, deeply moving and at times lyrical, with vivid characters. Because a great novel emerged out of a great (and real) tragedy and injustice, apartheid in South Africa. And because it reminds us that there is enough hating already in our lands and that the dawn will come, as it has come for a thousand centuries.
A book of more recent vintage, which didn’t get a fair shake since its publisher essentially collapsed when it came out. It’s a riff on tall tales that satirizes modern-day narcissism.
An historical novel about the Spartans at Thermopylae that is brilliantly written, richly detailed, and, friends who are classical scholars tell me, has historical accuracy.
Silverberg offers telepathy as a metaphor for any tremendous gift or personal ability which distorts all the other aspects of a person’s selfhood, or causes his full personhood to atrophy. David Selig, Silverberg’s protagonist, who is slowly losing his ability to read other people’s minds, an ability he has relied upon his entire life to the virtual exclusion of any other talent, is a science fictional Bobby Fischer, a prodigy whose extraordinary ability in one narrow realm has benighted the lives of those closest to him and helped twist David into a despicable human being. David’s slow, painful coming to terms with the approaching death of the only thing which has ever made him special stands, along with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, as one of science fiction’s finest achievements in the portrayal of loss and bereavement.
A cruelly, wildly funny tale of Irish village life told from the point of view of an innocent visitor who wants to be charmed by the comprehensive inefficiencies of the insular, alien culture into which he has thrust himself, but finally ends up longing to exterminate all the brutes. Though she is now remembered (if at all) as a “humorist,” Tracy’s wit was far sharper and more penetrating than that bland word would suggest, and The Straight and Narrow Path, her second and best novel, is one of the smartest portrayals of cross-cultural confusion ever to see print.
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011). Rick Richman, author of Jewish Current Issues and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
A book about an IRS Regional Examination Center and its trainee, “David Foster Wallace,” who goes through boredom-survival training to cope with the endlessly tedious work. The Pale King is a meditation on overcoming the apparent pointlessness of life, by a person tragically unable to survive it even at the pinnacle of his success as the most extraordinary writer of his generation. (A fuller account is here.)
COMMENTARY readers are encouraged to add their own quirky and idiosyncratic recommendations by means of the comment thingamajig below.
Not Another Best-of-the-Year List
Must-Reads from Magazine
The border of incitement.
The idea that speech can itself constitute an act of violence grows ever more popular among the left’s leading polemicists. They argue that employing a politically incorrect word can be triggering; that the wrong gender pronoun can provoke; that words and sentences and parts of speech are all acts of aggression in disguise. The left seeks to stop this violence, or less euphemistically: to silence this speech.
Given their particular sensitivity to the triumphant mightiness of the pen, it’s profoundly disturbing to note where lines are drawn and exceptions made.
Linda Sarsour, the left’s darling of the day, posted a widely-shared picture of Palestinians praying in the streets of Jerusalem, an act protesting the placement of metal detectors outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. “This is resilience. This is perseverance. This is faith. This is commitment. This is inspiration. This is Palestine,” Sarsour wrote. “Denied access to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque in their own homeland, Palestinians pray on the streets in an act of non-violent resistance. They are met with tear gas and rubber bullets.”
Absent from her platitudinous prevarication was any mention of the inarguably violent act that led Israel to construct the metal detectors in the first place, the recent killing of two Israeli police officers at the Temple Mount. Also absent: any reference to the three Israelis who were brutally murdered in the settlement of Halamish on Friday night. It was a far cry from nonviolent resistance when 19-year-old Omar al-Abed entered a home, saw a family finishing a Shabbat dinner, and began indiscriminately stabbing his victims.
Sarsour’s rhetoric is dangerous precisely because she understands her audience and how to appeal to their emotions. She peppers her statements with a few felicitous bromides like “non-violent resistance” and hopes no one notices the inconsistency of her arguments. Others on the left are slightly more honest about their intentions.
Writing in Al Jazeera, Stanley Cohen called on Israel to “accept that as an occupied people, Palestinians have a right to resist—in every way possible.” He begins by telling his readers: “long ago, it was settled that resistance and even armed struggle against a colonial occupation force is not just recognized under international law but specifically endorsed.” His entire article is predicated on a false premise in that it demands the characterization of Israel as a “colonial occupation force”— a characterization that is categorically incoherent.
Cohen cites a 1982 UN Resolution which “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.” He does not mention which countries voted for and against this resolution.
Among the countries that voted for it: Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Qatar, Niger, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq.
Among the countries who voted against it: Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States.
On college campuses, the call for armed struggle has become the Cri de Coeur of leftist students who are otherwise hypersensitive to the impact that intangible words can have on corporeal beings. On Columbia’s campus, students who form the backbone of the BDS movement have successfully blurred the line between incitement and impassioned—albeit severely misguided—opinion. In 2016, the Columbia/ Barnard Socialists concluded one social media post by declaring: “long live the intifada.” As recently as Sunday—after the Halamish attack— the Students for Justice in Palestine shared the Al Jazeera article calling for armed resistance. Where are the outraged professors, administrators, and students concerned for the safety of the student body? Where are the charges of bigotry and racism, the calls to silence this speech, to stop this violence?
Nowhere does the idea that speech can constitute violence find more support than on elite liberal arts colleges. But regardless of whether they have intellectual or moral merit on their own, calls for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and micro-aggression-free environments that come from groups or individuals who not only condone, but use their words to quite literally call for violence, must be ignored, and the hypocrisy highlighted.
From the safe confines of an ivory-covered campus–or from the relative safety of this country, for that matter–it’s easy to preach justice and retribution, to portray armed struggle as the necessary means that will find justification through a righteous end. But especially those who are sensitive to the power of language should understand: euphemistic terminology does nothing to mitigate the violent nature inherent in this rhetoric. There must be no confusion. The left’s glorification of armed struggle is nothing short of approval for those Palestinians who target and kill innocent men, women, and children. Those who proclaim to speak for social justice have been damningly silent.
Podcast: How bad is it?
On the first of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald join me to sort through—and we do it systematically, which is a first for us—what is going on with the Russia investigation and how it divides into three categories. There’s the question of the probe itself, there’s the question of collusion, and there’s the question of obstruction of justice. It’s really good. I mean it. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Democracy dies while the president looks the other way.
Past U.S. presidents have used their bully pulpit to campaign for human-rights and democracy. By encouraging the unprecedented wave of democratization that has swept the world since 1945, their words and actions had consequences. That’s not something that Donald Trump does. Far from it; he positively praises dictators. His words have consequences, too, and they are not good.
After Trump praised Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which involves sending out death squads to kill thousands of people, the Philippine president was emboldened to impose martial law on Mindanao. After Trump visited Saudi Arabia and praised its rulers, they were emboldened to launch a counterproductive boycott of Qatar that is splintering the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. And after Trump visited Warsaw on July 6 and embraced the ruling Law and Justice Party, it was emboldened to push through parliament a law that would essentially destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary, the last major institution standing in the way of its authority.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that, in each case, local officials reacted to their own imperatives and that the words of Trump were not decisive. The president of the United States does exercise an outsized influence on allies, though; especially allies like Saudi Arabia and Poland, which rely on American protection for their very existence. Strong words of censure from Trump might not have dissuaded any of these rulers from the path they chose, but his words of support undoubtedly encouraged him to take actions that are antithetical to American values.
That’s particularly the case in Poland, which has long been held up as a shining star of the post-Communist world. Now its star is faded, its stature diminished because the populist Law and Justice Party appears intent on imposing quasi-authoritarian control over its unruly democracy. Party members have just pushed through parliament, without the benefit of hearings, a law that would remove all of the country’s supreme court judges and replace them with alternatives handpicked by the justice minister, who is a party member.
Under pressure from crowds of protesters and the European Union, President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed the supreme court bill, while signing other legislation that increases political control over the lower courts. The question now is whether Law and Justice will try again to politicize the judiciary as part of its larger assault on Polish democracy.
Already, Law and Justice has taken over the state-owned news media and turned it from the BBC model to the RT model, labeling political opponents as traitors to the Polish people. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “has accused the opposition of conspiring to kill his identical twin brother, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. ‘You murdered him, you scumbags,’ he said to the opposition during the parliamentary debate on the new law.”
There is not a shred of evidence to support this incendiary accusation; the plane crash was almost certainly an accident. Poland’s own investigation “blamed the disaster on a combination of factors, including bad weather and errors made by a pilot who was not adequately trained on the plane he was flying, a Tupolev-154. That probe also said Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots — but it stopped short of alleging intentional wrongdoing.”
In his disdain for political opposition and the media and his embrace of conspiracy theories, Kaczynski is reminiscent of Trump, except that he operates in a much more fragile political system without the protections enshrined in a centuries-old constitution.
During his ballyhooed speech in Warsaw, Trump defended “Western civilization,” but he had not one word of rebuke for his hosts in the Law and Justice Party over their efforts to undermine Polish democracy. The State Department, to be sure, is speaking up against the Law and Justice power grab. “The Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland,” it said in a statement. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”
Nice words, but they don’t carry much weight. The whole world knows that the State Department does not speak for the president. And, while Trump tweets about a plethora of other topics, he remains conspicuously silent about the sabotage of Polish democracy. Despite the veto of the supreme court bill, the future of Poland’s institutions remains very much an open question. It’s not too late, Mr. President, to speak up for the very principles of Western civilization that you praised in Warsaw when you said: “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”
Are the rewards worth the costs?
Universities may be non-profit, but they are big business. At the end of fiscal year 2015, for example, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton’s endowments were $38 billion, $26 billion, and $22 billion respectively. Those are correspondingly equivalent to the gross domestic products of Mongolia, Cyprus, and the West Bank and Gaza. University presidents make salaries on par with and often higher than corporate CEOs. Fundraising—traveling the world glad-handing alumni and lobbying—rather than academe has become the primary function of many university presidents.
To be fair, universities have become ever more expensive to run. Government regulations and mandates attached to the receipt of federal funds have burdened campuses with ever more administrators. So, too, has the culture of victimhood, which requires an ever-expanding support staff. Add into the mix the transformation of universities into country clubs competing to offer increasingly luxurious amenities, and management of a university requires ever more cash.
Universities pride themselves on diversity, which they too often define superficially in terms of skin color. Attracting international students to campus kills two birds with one stone: diversity plus full tuition since the foreign students accepted seldom qualify for financial aid from the university.
I am fortunate in my current job to be able to visit perhaps ten different colleges and university campuses each year, sometimes for stand-alone lectures but often for debates. During these visits, I am able to talk to students, professors, and administrators. In addition, many of my peers from graduate school are now tenured faculty, and rising through the ranks of their respective universities. Some of them have raised concern that certain dynamics surrounding ever increasing numbers of foreign students from certain countries have been counterproductive to universities’ educational mission.
The Peoples’ Republic of China sends several hundred thousand students to U.S. colleges, for example. Saudi Arabia sends 60,000. Many of these students fit in and receive a top notch education, but many also cheat on their applications. Academic corruption is fairly commonplace in both countries. In the most blatant cases, students pay others to take various exams required for college admissions, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Langue (TOEFL). Politically-connected students in each country can ensure that their transcripts and extracurricular portfolios highlight what American universities seek rather than what reality is.
Once admitted and on campus, it is clear that these students are not what they claimed to be. In some extreme cases, they cannot speak English well-enough to communicate and cannot understand what is said in class. This forces a choice upon the university: expel the sub-par students or expel them. The former maintains the school’s quality of education; the latter protects its bottom line. The unending quest to raise funds leads universities to choose the later. Some justify this practice because the tuition paid by the substandard students or their governments subsidizes the financial aid awarded to other students. Others recognize the problem but feel they have no recourse. Add into the mix the fact that some Chinese national students appear to be conducting surveillance on their peers, and the dynamics only get more complicated.
To be fair, fewer university administrations succumb to the quid pro quo of loosening standards than do those which rationalize limits to free speech and intellectual inquiry. The general pattern seems to be that middle-ranked undergraduate programs and masters programs at elite schools make the greatest compromises.
How to resolve the problem? Financial discipline among management would go a long way. So, too, would be a no-nonsense approach to standards. If necessary, universities should proctor their own exams overseas. After all, if dozens of mainland Chinese students can pay $50,000 per year to a university, that university should be able to find $5,000 to send a proctor to one or two cities in that country to oversee and mark exams and conduct in-person interviews.
American universities are facing multiple crises. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has documented threats to free speech on campus and, admirably, stands on objective principle; it does not pass its judgment through partisan litmus tests. Threats to free speech may get the headlines—and deservedly so—but as American universities increasingly become global campuses, willingness to bend standards after the fact when foreign nationals admitted do not match the abilities reflected on their applications can have a deeply corrosive effect on educational quality in America’s most elite colleges and universities.
So many foreigners—the sons and daughters of political and business elite—flock to American universities because they offer the best and broadest education. To destroy that reputation for short-term gain would be mismanagement in the extreme.
Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.