“It’s pretty clear to me everyone in the White House knows it’d be the end of President Trump’s presidency if he tried to fire Mr. Mueller,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina yesterday on ABC’s This Week, referring to Robert Mueller, the special counsel hired last May to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016. And, no doubt, there would be a political earthquake if Trump moved to oust Mueller: outrage from Democrats, apoplectic editorials and denunciations from pundits, and plenty of head-shaking, handwringing and tsk-tsking from moderate and Never Trump Republicans.
But would it, in fact, be the end of Trump’s presidency? The really scary thing about the idea of Trump firing Mueller, whose investigation appears to be closing in on the White House, is that the president might actually get away with it. The GOP, clubbed into obedience to Trump in 2016 and then steamrolled to go along with his serial outrages since the inauguration, has so cravenly bowed down to the president that the chance is virtually zero that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would support Democratic calls for Trump’s impeachment in the wake of Mueller’s firing.
And in the Senate, only a handful of Republicans – including Graham, along with Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, both of whom have announced their retirements – can be seen as candidates to support Trump's impeachment, and even their votes aren’t certain. A pair of bills in the Senate (one sponsored by Graham) designed to build a firewall around the Mueller investigation are going nowhere fast.
Why is this an urgent question now? Last week, in a blockbuster report, The New York Times revealed that in June, Trump did indeed order that Mueller be fired, just weeks after he was appointed to serve as special counsel. It was a constitutional crisis only narrowly averted when Don McGahn, the White House counsel, told Trump he’d quit rather than carry out the order. But there is a more immediate concern raised by the Times report: Why did it surface now? Did someone – possibly McGahn himself – leak it because Trump is once again having a Russiagate temper-tantrum and sharpening his axe for Mueller? And could such an action be imminent?
Trump, to be sure, denies any intention to oust Mueller. “Fake news, folks. Fake news,” he said in Davos, Switzerland, three days ago, responding to the story. But no one should have been surprised by the New York Times’ account. In June, a close friend of Trump’s, Christopher Ruddy of Newsmax, warned explicitly that Trump was thinking about “terminating” Mueller. “I think he’s weighing that option,” said Ruddy, at the time. And this week, Ruddy doubled down on his claim, telling the Daily Beast, “I had been told by very high-ranking senior White House officials that he was seriously moving in that direction. I was not aware of the position of [Don] McGahn, but it fits into what I had heard.”
In Fire and Fury, the multimillion-selling, tell-all book about Trump by Michael Wolff, who had unparalleled access to top-level White House officials, Wolff reports that Trump truly believed that getting rid of Mueller was his do-or-die option. Wrote Wolff:
"There was the president’s insistent claim that he could do something. I can fire him, he would say. Indeed, it was one of his repetitive loops: I can fire him. I can fire him. Mueller. The idea of a showdown in which the stronger, more determined, more intransigent, more damn-the-consequences man prevails was central to Trump’s own personal mythology."
Firing Mueller would be considered by many the capstone on Trump’s long-established record of seeking to obstruct justice in the Russiagate inquiry. From the start, Trump pressured top officials in the intelligence community to intervene to get the FBI – which had launched an official investigation of Trump-Russia way back in July 2016 – to back off. He demanded loyalty from FBI Director James Comey, and then fired him. He launched a war against his own U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. He’s demanded that the multiple congressional committees investigating Trump-Russia close down their inquiries. And he’s engaged in a nonstop barrage of tweets, public remarks and private attacks on the FBI and on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Russiagate point man at the Justice Department. With no justification, Trump has accused FBI officials of “treason.” And he pressured FBI Director Christopher Wray, himself appointed by Trump, to fire Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who just today announced that he was stepping down. The president’s utter contempt for the American system of justice, the rule of law and the constitutional separation of powers appears to be limitless.
Back in June – when the Times now says that Trump ordered Mueller’s firing and when Ruddy claims he’d been told it was being considered – Trump’s own lawyer was Marc Kasowitz, the president’s longtime legal attack dog, a New York real-estate lawyer with virtually no Washington political experience. By all accounts, Kasowitz was sympathetic to Trump’s belligerence. Since then, Kasowitz has been replaced by a new team of lawyers, led by Ty Cobb, who’ve apparently argued to the president that cooperation with Mueller, rather than confrontation, is the prudent path.
Trump's new legal team has followed through, delivering reams of documents to Mueller’s formidable group of prosecutors, criminal-law experts and FBI investigators, and providing White House and administration officials for testimony in front of Mueller & Co. According to a memo from Cobb, the White House has turned over more than 20,000 pages of documents to the Office of the Special Counsel along with 1.4 million pages of documents from the Trump campaign. And, Cobb wrote, more than 20 White House personnel and 17 campaign officials have appeared before Mueller or Congress, or both.
But, as Trump’s legal team undoubtedly knows, a reckless, impulsive and egomaniacal president, feeling boxed in by Mueller’s relentless investigation, could easily wake up one morning and decide the era of cooperation with Mueller is over.
In recent weeks, there’s been a lively back and forth about whether Trump himself will submit to a one-on-one sitdown with Mueller for testimony, under oath, in the Russiagate investigation. “I would love to do it, and I would like to do it as soon as possible,” said Trump. “I would do it under oath, absolutely.” But not so fast. Many observers, including lawyers and officials with experience in the Department of Justice, are skeptical, to say the least, that Trump will agree to testify, whether in person, by video or in writing, to Mueller’s team.
Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, writing for Lawfare, penned a piece called “Don’t Expect Trump to Testify Anytime Soon.” In it, Litman argues that Mueller would essentially make mincemeat of the president, especially when it comes to Trump’s long list of prevarications on the issue of obstruction of justice – for instance, Trump’s ever-changing reasons for firing Comey last May. “He will have Trump dead in his sights on the obstruction charges,” writes Litman. And Trump, he adds, would easily be shredded by Mueller. “Trump is arrogant and easily goaded, making him a prosecutor’s dream.”
Even if, by some miracle, Trump does indeed agree to sit down with Mueller, that wouldn’t be the end of the story, writes Litman:
"There would be a number of options for Trump to upend the sandbox. He could discharge Mueller and face the firestorm. He could take the Fifth Amendment but posture as if he were doing it only out of contempt for the probe. He could perhaps agree to testify but basically filibuster and treat the whole proceeding as a “witch hunt” kangaroo court. That might force the unseemly prospect of Mueller’s bringing a contempt proceeding against him, which would raise new unresolved legal issues. Even a “wag the dog” strategy could not be counted as off the table."
A wag-the-dog strategy, of course, means that the president might even try to distract the country from Russiagate by going to war, as in the film with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Litman concludes:
"Trump is the chaos president. Trying to anticipate his reaction, especially when he is facing a mortal challenge to his presidency, is like trying to predict the movements of a tropical storm. But there is one takeaway point: Do not count on his raising his right hand any time soon."