Can anyone stop Trump from firing Mueller?
He clearly wants to
President Trump is ready to fight.
Apparently because the multitude of lawyers in his employ weren't displaying the proper legal je ne sais quoi he's after, this week he added yet another attorney to his team, longtime Washington fixture Joseph diGenova. DiGenova, however, is known less for his courtroom wizardry than for his regular appearances on Fox News, which is no doubt where Trump learned about him and became convinced of his qualifications. Not long ago, for instance, diGenova told Tucker Carlson that in 2016 within the FBI "there was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn't win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime."
That's just the kind of clear-eyed insight Trump was looking for. Meanwhile, the president has reportedly talked with associates about ditching Ty Cobb, the lawyer who has counseled cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and John Dowd, who is supposed to be in charge of the legal team, "has contemplated leaving his post because he has concluded that he has no control over the behavior of the president." It is, as Trump once said about his White House, a fine-tuned machine.
Yet more and more, people are asking whether Trump will order Mueller to be fired. One of the oddest things about this question is how so many think it can't possibly happen, because Trump would never be so bold and contemptuous of the rule of law as to fire the man investigating him. "I don't think there's any possibility that the president is going to take action that would lead to the removal of the independent counsel," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), displaying the untouched innocence that makes her so adorable. As it happens, there are bills in Congress that would forbid the president from firing Mueller, but Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, "I don't think that's going to happen, so I just think it's not necessary." Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tells us that there's nothing to worry about: "I have received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration."
But of course it's under consideration. When the president is tweeting things like "The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime [...] WITCH HUNT!" how can you say no one's considering it?
I suspect that the assurances Ryan has received are not from Trump himself but from members of his staff, who would say in all honesty that they understand that firing Mueller would be a political catastrophe, potentially setting off a constitutional crisis that could even lead to impeachment. Indeed, in January The New York Times reported that last June, Trump ordered Mueller to be fired, but backed down when White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit if he went ahead (Trump called the report "fake news"). And we haven't heard of any White House personnel actually advocating that Mueller get the ax.
But that doesn't mean Trump won't be hearing from people telling him to go ahead and fire Mueller. Let's consider how it could play out.
As we know, Mueller has been quite busy, and has already flipped multiple former Trump staffers, including campaign aides George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. As the indictments pile up, Trump will feel more and more pressured. Then there's the question of Trump's testimony, which his lawyers are desperately trying to limit. They know that if and when Mueller interviews the president the potential for disaster is high, given Trump's propensity to, shall we say, improvise in ways that don't always serve him well. Trump himself, however, says he is "champing at the bit" to testify, no doubt because he's sure that as a "very stable genius" he could run circles around Mueller.
But let's imagine that testimony happens, and it doesn't go well. Trump leaves angry and aggrieved, not only at the very fact of being subjected to this unconscionable witch hunt, but in particular at the questions Mueller asks about his finances. Despite the pleading of his staff, Trump's more aggressive attorneys tell him to fight like hell, which would include getting rid of his pursuer. He hears from supportive backbench congressmen looking to make a name by saying the whole investigation should be shut down. And above all, his most trusted set of advisers — the hosts on Fox News — are telling him every day, multiple times a day, in increasingly loud and angry terms, to fire Mueller.
And Trump just can't take it anymore. He rants for an hour about Mueller and his temerity in thinking Mueller can tell him what he can and can't do, egged on by Sean Hannity, with whom he's in regular contact. Then in the depths of his rage he picks up the phone and says, "Get me Rod Rosenstein," the deputy attorney general overseeing the probe. "Please don't do this, sir," says an aide or two, but Trump will not be contained or denied. "I've had it," he tells Rosenstein. "Fire Mueller. Shut the investigation down. It's over."
No one who has watched this president could call that scenario far-fetched. Now maybe it won't happen; maybe his lawyers and his staff will be able to hold Trump back and convince him that firing Mueller will in the end be far worse for him than allowing the investigation to run its course. But if that's what he decides he really wants to do, I doubt they're going to be able to stop him.