What are we to make of arch-conservative Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina taking a stand against President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?
Tillis is among a surprising group of Senate Republicans backing a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller in case Trump fires him. Here is Tillis, who votes with Trump 96 percent of the time, sending the message to his fellow Trump backers: "The same people who would criticize me for filing this bill would be absolutely angry if I wasn't pounding the table for this bill if we were dealing with Hillary Clinton," he said last week. "So, spare me your righteous indignation."
Well, that's a first — one of the president's strongest supporters telling other Trump supporters they are wrong to blindly back Trump. The key here is that Tillis isn't up for reelection until 2020. I suspect that Tillis is getting a jump on distancing himself from the president in 2020. That is when Tillis' name will appear below Trump's name on the ballot (or if Trump is gone, below the name of Trump's tainted-by-proximity vice president, Mike Pence).
With less than seven months until the midterm elections, the most politically savvy Republicans are drawing the obvious conclusion from current polls: If the election were held today, they would lose the House and possibly the Senate because of Trump. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week found Trump underwater, with a 39 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval rating. Trump's approval rating is down 4 points since last month.
A Quinnipiac poll — taken before the raid on Trump attorney Michael Cohen's office this month — found that 69 percent of Americans oppose Trump firing Mueller. Just 13 percent think Trump should fire him. Even with those strong poll numbers backing Mueller, the top Republicans in the Senate and House remain protective of Trump. They are politically paralyzed, displaying a "deer-in-the-headlights" inability to stand up to Trump for fear of angering the president's small but fevered base of supporters. Trump calls the probe a "hoax."
Speaker Paul Ryan has said he does not think legislation to protect Mueller is necessary because he does not believe Trump will fire the special counsel. McConnell is taking the same stand in opposition to a bill that would give Mueller a 10-day period for judicial review of any dismissal.
"I don't think [Trump] should [fire Mueller] and I don't think he will," McConnell told my Fox News colleague Neil Cavuto. But McConnell remains opposed to even bringing any legislation to insulate Mueller to the Senate floor for a vote. That imperious position is responsible for the first cracks in the GOP congressional stonewall defense of Trump.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a strong Trump supporter until now, is splitting from McConnell by scheduling a vote on the measure later this week in the committee. "Obviously, the majority leader's views are important to consider, but they do not govern what happens here in the Judiciary Committee," Grassley told reporters.
Two Republicans on Grassley's Committee are spearheading the bipartisan legislative push to protect Mueller. In addition to Tillis, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, is also a sponsor of the measure. He is on record as saying that if Trump fires Mueller, it will "be the beginning of the end of his presidency."
There is also the argument that Trump will veto any law protecting Mueller, so why bother? But Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has countered that, even if Trump vetoes the bill, the purpose of putting it on his desk is "to send a message to the president ... the message needs to be that we take this very seriously."
McConnell and Ryan don't have an answer to the obvious flaw in their logic. If there is no danger of Trump firing Mueller, then what is the harm in passing legislation to protect him? If McConnell and Ryan are right that Trump won't fire Mueller, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by protecting fellow Republicans and shutting down critical Democrats.
The reality is that if Trump fires Mueller, the midterms could be even worse than the most pessimistic prognosticators imagine. The harsh reality of extensive political turmoil leading to riots if Mueller is fired is already of concern to police. The Pittsburgh police chief told his officers to be prepared for just that scenario in a department-wide memo last week.
How far we have come since the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump in 2016 adopted a party platform that read "the next president must restore the public's trust in law enforcement and civil order by first adhering to the rule of law himself."
Juan Williams is an author and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.