Trump’s new offensive against the Russia probe
Several Republican lawmakers publicly urged President Trump not to fire Robert Mueller this week, after the president openly attacked the special counsel by name for the first time, describing his investigation as a “total witch hunt” that “should never have been started.” In a series of angry tweets that alarmed Washington, the president celebrated the controversial dismissal of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, falsely claimed that Mueller’s team contains 13 “hardened Democrats” and “zero Republicans,” and insisted there was “NO COLLUSION!” Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, later called for an end to the Mueller probe—reportedly on his client’s instructions. The president shook up his legal team by adding Joe diGenova, an outspoken former U.S. attorney who has described the investigation as “a Deep State conspiracy” to “frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime.” These developments followed reports that Mueller’s team had sent Trump’s lawyers a list of questions it wants him to answer, and also had subpoenaed the Trump Organization for business documents related to any dealings with Russia.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that removing the special counsel would be “the beginning of the end” of Trump’s presidency, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted Mueller was an “excellent appointment” who should be “allowed to finish the job.” Democrats and some Republicans repeated calls to pass a bipartisan bill that would require Trump to get judicial approval of justifications for firing, but GOP leaders insisted the legislation wasn’t necessary.
McCabe, a 21-year FBI veteran, was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions late last Friday, just over 24 hours before he was set to retire and become eligible for a larger pension. His dismissal came after the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that he had misled investigators over leaks to the media concerning an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. McCabe, who has been publicly lambasted by Trump on Twitter, described the decision to fire him as “part of an effort to discredit me as a witness” in the Mueller probe.
What the editorials said
McCabe probably deserved to be fired, said The Weekly Standard. The Justice Department’s nonpartisan Office of the Inspector General is widely respected, and lying to investigators is a cardinal sin for G-men. But because Trump has spent the past year personally criticizing McCabe—claiming he’s hopelessly partisan because his wife received campaign funds from Clinton allies while running for the Virginia State Senate in 2015—the focus isn’t on whether the dismissal was justified. It’s on whether the president’s attacks on McCabe, the FBI, and Mueller suggest he “has something to hide.”
“Under no circumstances should Trump attempt to fire Mueller,” said the Newark, N.J., Star Ledger. The president may not enjoy having the special counsel’s investigation hanging over him, but it has already yielded 22 indictments and five guilty pleas. That’s no “witch hunt.” As for Trump’s claim that the investigation is politically motivated, “Mueller himself is a registered Republican,” and so is his supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Most rational Americans would see the removal of the special counsel as “final confirmation” that the president “must be guilty of something.”
What the columnists said
Trump has clearly concluded that “keeping the gloves off Mueller” wasn’t working, said Chris Cillizza in CNN.com. So he’s returned to his default approach: attack, attack, attack. The president’s aim now is to “discredit” the special counsel and his investigation, so that his base will “discount” whatever findings the investigation produces. In coming weeks and months, “expect Trump to go harder after Mueller and his team. A lot harder.”
The president cannot actually fire Mueller himself, said Andrew Prokop in Vox.com. That power lies with Rosenstein, who has “repeatedly” pledged not to remove the special counsel without “good cause.” To get around that, Trump could fire Rosenstein and work his way down the Justice Department’s “line of succession” until he finds someone willing. Another option is to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation, and replace him with a Trump loyalist who would severely limit or halt Mueller’s work. Both options would be highly risky, triggering a national political earthquake that could end Trump’s presidency.
Removing Mueller “doesn’t make sense,” said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. It would further galvanize Democratic voters ahead of the midterms—and if Democrats did then retake the House, they’d make the firing “the basis of impeachment charges.” Besides, Mueller’s team would almost certainly leak all its findings to lawmakers and newspapers. The only rational reason for the president to take this step would be that he “fears some thermonuclear revelation that wouldn’t be survivable.”
Republicans keep saying it would be “stupid” for Trump to fire Mueller, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. But that’s based on the assumption the president is innocent. Perhaps Trump is acting guilty because he is guilty. In strongly hinting he’s thinking of firing Mueller, Trump just tested Republicans—and found strong evidence they’ll just squawk and let him get away with it. Given that dynamic, and Trump’s growing conviction he can trust only his own gut, an attempt to fire Mueller seems not just likely, but “inevitable.”
Trump’s lawyers are currently trying to “curtail the scope of a presidential interview” with Mueller, said Carol Leonnig in The Washington Post. The negotiations have been going on for weeks, and the president’s legal team recently gave the special counsel “written descriptions that chronicle key moments under investigation,” in hopes of limiting the parameters of a head-to-head session. Trump’s attorneys are nervous that the president’s “penchant for making erroneous claims” would make him vulnerable in a lengthy one-on-one session. Among the questions Mueller wants to explore is why Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey and what he knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s communications with the Russians.
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Newscom (2), AP.
On the cover: special counsel Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump ■