For congressional Republicans, having Donald Trump in the White House is like carrying around a vial of nitroglycerin. It can be useful in getting your way with others, but it puts you at perpetual risk of making a wrong move and being blown to pieces.
Most of these legislators came into this relationship against their own preferences, having favored someone else in the GOP primaries. Now that they are in it, they are constantly trying to figure out how to work with the president to advance their agenda while keeping him from setting off explosions.
As Trump escalates his attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, they are being accused of timidity for declining to move legislation to prevent Trump from firing him. "Paul Ryan needs to be stronger, and so does Mitch McConnell," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Rep. Jerry Nadler, (D-N.Y.), charged that by not acting, "they're almost encouraging" Trump to dismiss Mueller.
Passing this type of bill, argued an editorial in The Washington Post, "would send a clear, public message that congressional leaders have so far declined to convey: Firing Mr. Mueller would elicit a substantial real-world reaction that would severely harm the White House."
The critics sound like childless adults who think parents should be able make their kids behave perfectly. Keeping Trump under control is harder than it looks. Some of the most important Republicans on Capitol Hill may be holding off not because they want to see Mueller fired but because they don't.
When you throw a pass, the legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal noted, three things can happen—and two of them are bad. A push for this legislation would have even worse odds. Five things could happen, and only one is good.
First, a measure to protect Mueller could fail to get the votes to pass. Or it could pass without the two-thirds needed in both houses to override a veto. Either fate would give Trump the idea that he could purge the special counsel and get away with it.
The prospect of legislation could also prompt him to pre-empt it by firing Mueller immediately. The least likely outcome would be that the measure actually becomes law. If it did, Trump might dismiss him anyway and bet the courts would strike it down.
Some prominent GOP lawmakers have publicly warned Trump to leave Mueller alone. But even Republicans who have been willing to challenge the president are not lining up behind such legislation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who says that firing Mueller "would be the end of President Trump's presidency," is sponsoring a bill to protect the special counsel—but thinks it can wait. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina doesn't mind that his bill is collecting cobwebs, because there is no "imminent need." Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a vocal Trump opponent, has yet to buy in.
What would explain this paradox? The general line among Republican members is that the president should let the special counsel complete his task. Some may also be communicating to Trump privately that while they can tolerate his furious denunciations of Mueller, they would not tolerate his firing.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell, told The New York Times that if the Republican leader feels the need to let Trump know he shouldn't get rid of Mueller, "he probably communicates it directly and doesn't feel the need to pontificate in public."
The Republicans may also be playing a long game. By not passing a bill to constrain Trump, they convey their loyalty to GOP voters—82 percent of whom still view the president favorably. If these members are going to abandon him, they may calculate, better to wait until he makes a huge misstep. With any luck, he'll restrain himself and they won't have to.
Perhaps the inaction of congressional Republicans reflects animus toward the special counsel, blind allegiance, to Trump, or cowardice. But it's equally plausible that they are making a considered effort to avoid encouraging or provoking the president to fire Mueller.
In a hyper-partisan climate, it's easy to interpret every difference of opinion as proof of sordid motives. But if Republicans actually wanted Trump to get rid of Mueller, they would be saying so. Instead, they have shown a preference for letting him do his job. We shouldn't rule out the possibility that they have the right goal and know how to achieve it.