When it comes to Robert Mueller's investigation, President Trump has an angel perched on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel tells him to let the special counsel's probe run its course, for the sake of himself, his party, and the integrity of the system. The devil tells him that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has no right to keep poking around in his business, and if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein doesn't have the guts to fire him, then Trump ought to axe Rosenstein and replace him with someone who knows who the boss is.
The angel and the devil are just metaphors, of course. What we really have is a debate swirling around Donald Trump, with everyone telling him what to do about Mueller and his other supposed enemies. But those with the most access to the president's psyche are the ones shouting most loudly to get rid of Mueller, Rosenstein, and anybody else who doesn't show the proper loyalty.
Theirs is a campaign being waged not only through persuasion but now with the tools of institutional power, and the latest arena of conflict is over notes then-FBI Director James Comey wrote detailing his contacts with President Trump. The notes are currently part of the Mueller investigation, but Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is planning to issue a subpoena forcing the Justice Department to turn them over to congressional Republicans, which Justice has resisted up until now.
Not only that, this week the chair of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), told Rod Rosenstein that if he didn't hand over documents relating to the Clinton email matter and the Russia investigations, Republicans might move to hold him in contempt or even impeach him. After a recent meeting between Rosenstein, Meadows, and another Freedom Caucus member, Jim Jordan, Meadows spoke with President Trump, presumably to update him on how the effort to put the screws to Rosenstein is proceeding.
It seems clear that Republicans are working to intimidate Rosenstein to make him comply with their demands, and vilify him if he doesn't. As Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent, "The point is to create a conflict with the Justice Department that would give the president grounds to get rid of Mueller or Rosenstein." If they succeed in getting the documents, Republicans can selectively leak portions of them to make it appear that there was all kinds of malfeasance at work in the Justice Department and everyone was engaged in a conspiracy to hurt Trump. If Rosenstein holds firm, they can use it as evidence that he must be fired.
But that's just one part of the effort that's underway. A group of Republicans in the House recently sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding that Hillary Clinton, James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and a bunch of other people be prosecuted for their imagined crimes. And Fox News host Sean Hannity, who is reportedly "so close to Trump that some White House aides have dubbed him the unofficial chief of staff," has been using his program to create a nightly drumbeat for firing Mueller, portraying the upright prosecutor as a lawless rogue with shady ties and a mania for taking Trump down.
What this all amounts to is that on a daily basis, many of the people Trump trusts and relies on most are telling him that the Mueller probe must be shut down by any means necessary. Who's on the other side of that argument? Most of the media, any respectable person in Washington, and some of Trump's old antagonists in the GOP like Lindsey Graham. In other words, a bunch of people the president can't stand.
If they're battling for Trump's heart and mind, it doesn't seem like a fair fight.
There's another message in what Trump's most ardent fans are doing, beyond "Fire Mueller!" Their recent actions tell him that if he does finally go ahead with his own Saturday Night Massacre, they'll have his back. There will be Republicans rushing to defend him, cable news programs that will tell his loyalists why he had no choice, and an amen chorus to counter the condemnation that will inevitably come his way from the establishment's nattering nabobs.
It might just be enough to convince Trump that if he does what he plainly wants to do, he'd be able to get away with it. He just got another clear signal from Mitch McConnell, who announced that he would not permit a bill preventing Trump from firing Mueller to come to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
It's plain that at the moment, Trump is still undecided. He's intensely critical of the investigation, but dismisses speculation that he'll fire Mueller. He's well aware that it would cause a crisis, but he may calculate that he can survive it. So in the end, it may come down to just how scared he thinks he ought to be of Mueller.
Only Trump knows what Mueller might find out about him, but he doesn't seem like he's all that confident he'll be exonerated in the end.