Conventional wisdom is that we’re standing on the precipice of a Constitutional and moral crisis that will kick off when President Trump fires special council Robert Mueller and scuttles the former FBI director’s investigation.
There’s Salon asking whether Trump will fire Mueller. On the left, here are six disturbing signs from Think Progress that Trump is about to fire Mueller. And on the right, here’s National Review declaring it a foregone conclusion that Trump will fire Mueller.
In the absence of action from POTUS, his slavish acolytes in the conservative infotainment sphere have gone full broadside on Mueller, declaring him a partisan hack in charge of a biased deep state coup run by the Obama-Clinton machine. Apparently, Sean Hannity alone has called for Mueller’s firing or resignation nearly four dozen times since May.
And we know that when Sean Hannity speaks, Donald Trump listens.
But will he actually act? I’m not so sure. In fact, I’d be shocked if Trump went ahead and actually fired Mueller.
Am I naively engaged in wishful thinking? Perhaps. But before we assume that Trump is going to go full dictator and shut down the investigation into himself, let’s keep these things in mind:
Trump Likely Doesn’t Have the Power to Directly Fire Mueller
This might be a technicality, but legal scholars agree that Trump does not have the authority to dismiss someone who doesn’t serve at his pleasure. It was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who appointed Mueller in May, and Mueller reports to him, not the president.
In June Rosenstein told Congress under oath that he’s satisfied with the job Mueller is doing, and wouldn’t fire him – even if Trump ordered him to do so. As recently as last week, Rosenstein told a Maryland NBC outlet that he has no cause or plans to remove Mueller.
If Trump wants Mueller out, he’ll likely have to purge the Department of Justice to do it. And when Richard Nixon did that in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, it ended terribly for him.
Conservative Infotainment Is Trying to Discredit Mueller’s Investigation
It’s an open question of whether a sitting president can be subject to criminal indictment, with little clear agreement on who could do so, and for what crime.
Instead, previous special counsels made a report to Congress that ran down the nature of their offenses. It was these reports that were used in the impeachment proceedings of both presidents, though Nixon’s ended without an impeachment vote after he resigned.
It’s clear that Mueller is putting together enough evidence to find that President Trump obstructed justice and likely abused his power. Particularly damning for Trump is a new NBC report showing that Trump himself might have directed former NSA Michael Flynn to lie to the FBI.
This is an impeachable offense, and any report that pointed toward this or other abuses for Trump would be a grenade thrown into a tinder box full of TNT for Congress.
The 2018 midterm would become a referendum on impeachment, with every Democrat claiming that a vote for them is a vote to end the Trump presidency.
But if that report is poisoned when it reaches Congress, it will be much easier to ignore it and its implications. Democrats will have a harder time running on it, and Republicans will have any easy out when they get asked what they’re going to do about it.
Hence, the Fox News feeding frenzy. Poisoning the well will poison its water.
Theoretically, President Trump Should be Happy With How the Investigation is Going
Remember when Trump pitched himself as the “law and order” president. Well, Mueller is following the law and bringing order. He’s brought four criminals to justice and secured two guilty pleas. And he’s doing it at low cost to the taxpayer and with virtually no leaking.
Beyond that, Trump actually has a point when he claims that nothing Mueller has done so far has anything to do with him. Two of the indictments were for money laundering, while the others were for lying to the FBI.
So far, Mueller has been investigating for months and has found nothing connecting Trump to lawbreaking. For now, Trump really should be thrilled with the scofflaws being cleared out of his orbit, and do nothing to stand in its way.
Of course, if the investigation truly turns its power on Trump, that might change.
Firing Mueller Would Likely Have Disastrous Unintended Consequences
The Mueller investigation has broad public support. Donald Trump’s presidency does not, nor do Congressional Republicans.
If Trump were to fire Mueller, it would smash these immovable objects together, forcing unpopular Republicans to defend an unpopular action by an unpopular president in an election year where they’re facing a tidal wave of support for the opposition.
What happens if they just don’t support him?
It’s been assumed that Republicans will take no action to rein Trump in, because other than a few votes in the Senate, they’ve done nothing but slavishly support him so far. But if he fires the special counsel just as that office is starting to bear down on him, Republicans might have no choice but to disavow him at best, and take action against him at worst, at the risk of their own re-election. They’ll be chained to the corpse of the Trump presidency, and will do whatever they can to unshackle themselves.
Beyond that, it could spark civil unrest or mass demonstrations from the millions of Democrats who have opposed every action from the president since day one.
It was Nixon’s firing of the Watergate special counsel on October 20, 1973, that finally turned public opinion toward impeachment. Less than four months later, the House Judiciary Committee formally opened impeachment hearings – and six months after that, Nixon was out of office.
A Democratic House makes impeachment almost inevitable. But a Republican House might have to act if Trump does the unthinkable.
Firing Mueller Won’t Stop the Investigation – But It Might Speed it Along
When Nixon did fire Watergate special counsel Archibald Cox, it’s not as if the Watergate investigation ended. In fact, it went right on with a new special counsel appointed by Nixon because of the backlash against Cox’s firing. It was that new counsel who subpoenaed the White House for the tapes of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations related to Watergate.
Those tapes were the subject of a Supreme Court ruling that forced Nixon to give up his unedited conversations – including the “Smoking Gun” tape that caught Nixon ordering a cover-up at the earliest stages of the scandal.
We have no idea whether Mueller has such a smoking gun for Trump, or if one even exists. But if Trump does pull the plug on Mueller, that evidence will still exist. And it will likely be just a matter of time before it becomes public.
At that point, Trump will be in a situation he simply won’t be able to fire his way out of.