Will the president who fired FBI Director James Comey in May – against the advice of many of his closest advisers, including Steve Bannon – demand the ouster of Special Counsel Robert Mueller as soon as this week? Truth is, no one knows. And that probably includes Trump himself, who said on Monday that he has no intention of firing Mueller. Yet, it could happen. And if it does, it will plunge the country into a constitutional crisis and a political civil war.
Around Trump, some of his friends, members of Congress and supporters in the media are sounding the alarm about Mueller, whose investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion seems to be closing in on the White House, and their rhetoric is getting downright apocalyptic. Christopher Ruddy, the Newsmax exec who is one of Trump’s confidantes, and who says he’s spoken to Trump about the special counsel, told ABC’s This Week, “Robert Mueller poses an existential threat to the Trump presidency.” And a chorus of Republicans and right-wing media personalities have echoed each other, calling Mueller’s investigation part of a coup against the president.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said, “We are at risk of a coup d’état in this country if we allow an unaccountable person, with no oversight, to undermine the duly elected president of the United States.” Fox News provocateur Jesse Watters said, “We have a coup on our hands in America”; Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, who was being interviewed by Watters, seemed to agree. And Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose daughter is Trump’s press secretary, tweeted, “It’s an attempted coup d’etat.”
In recent statements and tweets, President Trump himself has demeaned the FBI, accused Mueller of using underhanded tactics (“quite sad to see that”), called Attorney General Jeff Sessions “weak” and disparaged Rod Rosenstein, the deputy U.S attorney general who oversees Mueller, as “a Democrat.” And, of course, Trump has repeatedly attacked the Mueller investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” Against the background of the outcry from his allies, it not at all unreasonable to think the president is getting ready to act.
To be sure, most of the people around Trump, including his legal team, are counseling the president to be patient, to stay the course and to let Mueller finish his investigation, and some aides are trying to calm the waters. Marc Short, a top White House aide, told NBC’s Meet the Press this week, “There’s no conversation about [firing Mueller] in the White House whatsoever.”
Their advice is well-reasoned. Each of the options theoretically available to the president – ordering the firing of Mueller, defunding or disbanding the Office of the Special Counsel, demanding orders be given that Mueller restrict his inquiry to certain areas only, or pardoning any or all of the people already indicted or who might be charged – risk driving the White House into dangerous, uncharted territory. Any of those actions is guaranteed to result in an uproar, one that would rally Democrats, rip apart the Republican Party, galvanize public opinion against the president and trigger widespread calls for his impeachment. “Firing Mueller would cause a severe political upheaval,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, tells Rolling Stone. “It would create a constitutional crisis, and I believe it would be a clear case of obstruction of justice.”
But Trump might do it anyway, like Samson toppling the pillars of the temple (Judges 16:29). Trump is nothing if not erratic and pugnacious, with contempt for the Washington establishment and for basic rules of civility and America’s legal and constitutional order. As his Twitter rants and penchant for knife-like personal attacks on those who challenge him reveal, his first instinct – learned at the knee of a vicious, street-fighting lawyer, the late Roy Cohn – is to punch back, and hard. So it’s impossible to rule out the likelihood that a man frequently given to rages inside the confines of the White House could erupt, Captain Queeg-like, and demand Mueller’s head.
Were he to do so, there’d be both legal and political pushback. Under the Justice Department rules that govern special counsels, Mueller can only be fired for good cause, not on an arbitrary whim of the president’s. So, if Mueller were fired without good cause, both Mueller and the DOJ would have grounds to challenge the firing in court, according to Lawfare’s Jack Goldstein, a professor at Harvard Law School. Furthermore, Trump can’t do the deed himself; he’d have to ask Rosenstein to do it. But Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, has already made it clear he sees no good reason to fire him – and would certainly refuse, choosing to resign. Then, Trump would have to work his way down DOJ’s food chain until he found an official who’d agree to fire Mueller, perhaps after a series of explosive and high-profile refusals and resignations. (See: Richard Nixon’s 1973 Saturday Night Massacre.) Still, none of this means Trump won’t do it, especially if he believes Mueller poses an “existential threat” to his tenure.
Besides the legal challenges and procedural obstacles, firing Mueller is guaranteed to trigger widespread calls for Trump’s impeachment among members of Congress. But would those calls succeed? Impeaching Trump would require a majority vote in the House of Representatives and then a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate – and given the extreme polarization in Congress and the seeming willingness of elected GOP officials to accept virtually anything that Trump does, it’s by no means clear that the president couldn’t survive.
Meanwhile, opposition to Trump would skyrocket, among Democrats, among the public, in the media and among legal scholars. (MoveOn.org has already planned hundreds of protest rallies across the country immediately to follow Mueller’s potential ouster.) The president’s approval rating, already in the mid-30s, would plummet. As Eric Holder, who served as President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted, “Any attempt to remove Bob Mueller will not be tolerated.”
And consider, for one moment, the darkest and scariest possibilities that could follow a showdown over Mueller. The very foundations of our legal and constitutional system would be shaken to the core, and at the top, in the White House, there would be a besieged and vindictive man with authoritarian proclivities. Would Trump call on his hard-core, white nationalist supporters, many of whom are armed and angry, to take to the streets? Would he threaten to call on the military and the National Guard? Would he order military action overseas to distract the country from the political crisis at home? Such scenarios, given Trump’s temper and unpredictability, don’t seem unthinkable.
Last week, Rosenstein sat down before a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, where for several hours a phalanx of GOP members of Congress ripped into him, the department, Mueller and Russiagate. Among the most vocal were Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina – the former prosecutor who led the years-long Benghazi hearings targeting Hillary Clinton – and, last but not least, Matt Gaetz. After the hearing, Gaetz told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, “Congress has an obligation to expose what I believe is a corrupt investigation and I call on my Republican colleagues to join me in firing Bob Mueller.” Worryingly, the week before the Rosenstein hearing, Gaetz had a tete-a-tete with Trump, joining the president aboard Air Force One on a political trip in support of failed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. And it’s advice like Gaetz’s that the mercurial Trump is most likely to take to heart.