What if Trump fires Mueller?
Republican politicians might express regret. They might shake their heads. But will they really turn on Trump?
President Trump is seething.
Okay, I don't know that for sure. After all, Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow said on CNN Monday morning that when it comes to the indictments of former Trump staffers handed down by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the fact that another former staffer accepted a plea deal to sing like a bird, nobody on the Trump team is worried in the slightest. "I'm not concerned about this at all, and no one else is either," Sekulow said, so maybe Trump is completely chill about the whole thing, secure in the knowledge that when the facts all come out, he'll be vindicated and everyone will see it was all just a hoax.
But c'mon. We know that he's sitting in the Oval Office, phone in hand and Fox on the TV, his face turning from orange to red as he realizes that this scandal is not going away.
Or might it? What if he could look Mueller right in his sanctimonious mug and say, "you're fired!" Then it would all be over, and Trump could go back to playing golf and making America great again without this cloud of oppression and unfairness hanging over him.
If that thought doesn't float through Trump's mind at least a few times a day, I'd be shocked. But would he really do it? And if he did, what would happen next?
It's a question that's worth asking, since we know that Trump is vindictive and impulsive, and we also know that he believes the entire investigation into Russia is illegitimate, as he says nearly every time the subject comes up. In his mind, firing Mueller wouldn't be an appalling act of obstruction, it would be a responsible way to end an out-of-control farce that never should have begun in the first place. And if you think he wouldn't do it, remind yourself that he was stupid and arrogant enough to go on national TV and admit that he fired the FBI director in order to shut down the Russia investigation (which didn't work, of course).
He has also made no secret of how livid he was at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, leading as it did to Mueller's eventual appointment. "Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else," Trump said — somebody who would have protected him.
Trump couldn't fire Mueller directly — he'd have to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller's probe, and then maybe a couple of people after that before the position was eventually put in the hands of someone willing to do his bidding. And now that the indictments have started, it would be even clearer if Trump moved to get rid of Mueller that doing so would be for no purpose other than obstruction of justice.
So let's imagine that day, when Trump overcomes the objections of his White House aides and makes it happen. What would Republicans do? Since they control Congress, they're the ones who possess the only means to restrain him. Would they stand up and say, "At long last, sir, you have truly gone too far"? Don't bet on it.
Not that there aren't a few who would. Some have even stood up for Mueller, a widely respected figure in Washington for decades. A few months ago, a couple of Republicans explored passing a bill making it difficult for a president to remove a special counsel (it went nowhere). Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who led one of the seven congressional investigations of Benghazi, was asked on Sunday whether he supports any effort to curtail Mueller, and he responded, "I don't. And I readily concede, I'm in an increasingly small group of Republicans," but that we should "give the guy a chance to do his job."
What's interesting about Gowdy's quote is the part about the "increasingly small group of Republicans" who don't want to rein in Mueller. Whether the group is really getting smaller, his quote is an indication that the dominant feeling among the GOP is that Mueller's investigation is unjustified or out of control and someone should put a stop to it. Like the president, for instance.
I don't doubt that if he actually did it, there would be a few Republican voices who would speak out and say he had gone too far. They might even say, "Imagine how we would be responding if it were Hillary Clinton doing the same thing." But the vast majority of Republicans would probably stand behind Trump, just as they have up until now. Some GOP members of Congress are already suggesting that Mueller resign, as has the Wall Street Journal editorial page. And you know Fox News will be on board.
As a purely political calculation, it wouldn't be foolish for congressional Republicans to have Trump's back almost no matter what he does. Helping the president obstruct justice might make them look bad, but really standing up to him — if it led to impeachment, which is frankly what he'd deserve if he fired Mueller — would be an outright calamity for them and their party. Even if they wound up doing the right thing, they'd pay a terrible price in the next election as voters recoiled from their entire party. Since survival is the highest priority of any politician, it would be naïve to expect them to stand up to him.
Presumably, though, there's some line Trump could cross and lose the support of his fellow Republicans. Perhaps if he strangled a puppy on live TV, or ordered nuclear weapons launched because Kim Jong Un made fun of him, or vetoed a tax cut bill. One of those might do it.
But firing the prosecutor investigating him? That would be small potatoes, certainly not worth getting worked up about. They'd shake their heads and express their regret, then say that what's most important is that we get those tax cuts. And Trump might weather the storm — at least until 2018.