Trump at crisis point on Mueller

President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE’s showdown with Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE headed toward a crisis point on Tuesday, with the White House saying Trump has legal authority to fire the special counsel.

Republicans unnerved by the president’s anger in public and private sought to talk him down, fearing a “Saturday night massacre”-style series of firings harking back to the Nixon era was growing more likely.

GOP lawmakers fear presidential firings of Mueller, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE or Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE would cause chaos in Washington and dim Republican hopes of holding their congressional majorities.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week Grassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel MORE (R-Iowa) declared in a CNN interview Tuesday that “it would be suicide for the president to fire him.”

“I have made my views public, and I hope he’s listening to those of us who say it would be a mistake,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Data reveal big opportunity to finish the vaccine job MORE (Texas).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios House rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ky.) insisted legislation to protect Mueller was unnecessary because cooler heads would prevail.

“I haven’t seen a clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed because I don’t think that’s going to happen, and that remains my view,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s still my view that Mueller should be allowed to finish his job. I think that’s the view of most people in Congress.”

Trump’s fury at the FBI’s raid on Monday on Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer, has triggered the latest crisis surrounding the Mueller probe.

Federal prosecutors were reportedly seeking information on payments made to two women, adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who both claim to have had affairs with Trump years ago.

The personal nature of the probe has clearly angered the president, who decried an unfair witch hunt of his presidency in a Tuesday morning tweet.

“Attorney–client privilege is dead!” Trump tweeted. “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”

The president also canceled a planned weekend trip to two South American nations.

Allies of Trump were egging him on, saying they would understand if he took the step of firing officials at the Department of Justice — a decision some Republicans have said could spark a constitutional crisis.

“I understand the president’s frustration with the hypocrisy playing out at the Department of Justice,” freshman Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzTrump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Britney Spears's new attorney files motion to remove her dad as conservator GOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing MORE (R-Fla.) told Fox News. “Frankly, it would be warranted if we made changes at the very top of the Department of Justice.”

“I think there is a sufficient basis to fire Rosenstein in particular, and likely the attorney general for not doing his job,” he added.

That suggestion shocked other Republicans.

“If the president were to fire the deputy attorney general, that would be an extraordinary crisis and a real problem, and I just don’t think he’s going to do it,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' Trump pressures McConnell, GOP to ditch bipartisan talks until they have majority Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-Maine).

GOP lawmakers couldn’t escape questions about Trump, Cohen, Mueller and Rosenstein from reporters at the Capitol — even on a day when Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergBudowsky: How Biden can defeat COVID-19 for good White House looks to cool battle with Facebook Facebook to dole out billion to creators into 2022 MORE was testifying on Capitol Hill for the first time.

Pushback from fellow Republicans against firing Mueller has grown stronger since the beginning of the year, when Trump’s allies mostly shrugged off speculation that the president would somehow cut short the special counsel investigation, dismissing it as an unlikely prospect.

While most Republicans maintain they don’t think Trump will quash the probe, they’re less confident than before.

And statements from the White House podium on Tuesday from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders only added to their fears.

Sanders announced that Trump “certainly believes that he has the power” to end Mueller’s investigation. The comments suggest the White House may be looking for legal arguments to back a decision to fire Mueller.

Legal experts say Trump does not have the power to fire Mueller directly. Under Justice Department regulations, that authority falls to the agency official in charge of the investigation — in this case Rosenstein.

It is easy to see why a Trump decision to fire Mueller would make Republicans queasy.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month found that 69 percent of American voters oppose Trump firing Mueller while only 13 percent support it. More than half of the Republicans polled, 55 percent, said Trump shouldn’t interfere.  

Republicans are worried about a wave election this fall that could cost them their House majority. There are also fears about the Senate, though the fact that Democrats are defending many more seats in the upper chamber gives Republicans more confidence about holding it.

Still, many GOP senators fear firing Mueller would pose new risks to their majority.

Trump also has reason to fear a Democratic takeover of the House and Senate, which would unleash investigations of his administration.

Amid uncertainty over what Trump will do next, some Republicans are pushing for legislation to protect Mueller, although that path doesn’t yet have much support in the party.

Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-N.C.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight MORE (R-S.C.) have sponsored bipartisan bills to protect the special counsel.

The Tillis measure would empower judges to reinstate Mueller if a court found his firing to be improper. Tillis on Tuesday called for a vote on the measure.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck Schumer84 mayors call for immigration to be included in reconciliation Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE (N.Y.) tried to ramp up pressure on Republicans Tuesday by defending the integrity of Mueller’s work and calling for Senate floor action. 

– Jordain Carney contributed