Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor and Trump cheerleader, says the United States is "on the brink of becoming a banana republic." He's correct, but for all the wrong reasons.
Hannity worries that special counsel Robert Mueller is getting too close to the White House and threatening the Trump presidency. That's why he and other Trump enablers have escalated their attacks against Mueller and other law enforcement agencies. This typical tirade comes from former House speaker Newt Gingrich: "Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt."
The real issue, however, is not the integrity of Mueller's investigation. It's the determination of Team Trump to undermine Mueller and the rule of law.
The definition of a "banana republic" is an unstable country run by an unrestrained and unaccountable dictator. That's why the attacks on Mueller are so dangerous: Their target is not just one man or one office. These are assaults on the American system itself, on our cherished tradition that no one, and certainly no president, is above the law.
The president and his supporters have despised Mueller since the day he was appointed, but their campaign of calumny has clearly accelerated since the special counsel brought indictments against two former Trump aides and extracted guilty pleas from two others.
One Republican congressman warned darkly that Mueller was planning a "coup d'etat" overturning the election. Another Fox News host, Jeanine Pirro, said the Justice Department and FBI should be "cleansed" of anti-Trump conspirators "who shouldn't just be fired, but who need to be taken out in handcuffs."
Trump tweeted that the FBI is "in tatters" with a reputation that is "the worst in history." That battle cry was picked up by Republicans in Congress, who berated FBI director Christopher Wray for pursuing the president during a contentious hearing.
"If you kicked everyone off of Mueller's team who was anti-Trump, I don't think there'd be anyone left," complained Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.
These denunciations are only going to get worse. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, was certainly right in warning Wray: "I predict these attacks on the FBI will grow louder and more brazen as the special counsel does his work and the walls close in around the president. Your job requires you to have the courage in these circumstances to stand up to the president."
One part of the Trumpian strategy is to undermine Mueller's credibility if the "walls close in" and more charges are filed against more White House aides. But there's a second goal as well: Prepare the way for firing Mueller.
That would cause a grave constitutional crisis, and Trump told reporters he has no plans to terminate Mueller. But anyone who thinks Trump is incapable of such an impulsive and incendiary move is not paying attention. In less than a year, he has already fired FBI Director James Comey and a platoon of senior aides.
The only way to forestall such a disaster is for Republicans to have the courage to "stand up to the president" and warn him away from self-immolation. They should follow the lead of Karl Rove, the former adviser to President Bush 43, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that dismissing Mueller "would be a terrible idea."
"Firing the special counsel would only make Mr. Trump look as if he had something to hide," wrote Rove. The president "would ignite a political conflagration that would consume him, those around him and his entire presidency."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also endorsed Mueller, telling hostile Republican lawmakers, "I believe he was an ideal choice for this task."
Few Republicans on Capitol Hill have shown the courage to stand up to Trump, but here's one useful step: Support two bipartisan bills that would make it harder for Trump to dump the special counsel. The measures have languished since a September hearing, but moving them forward would warn the president that he's playing with fire.
"I want the president to know that there is a process in place and there are checks and balances long before you got here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who co-sponsored one of the bills. "And they will be here long after you're gone."
Brave words, but they must be followed by actions. The Trumpistas threaten to turn this country into a banana republic where those checks and balances lose their meaning. They have to be told, as clearly and as firmly as possible, that they will fail.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org