Trump at crisis point on Mueller

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE’s showdown with Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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 SessionsGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Martin, Bobby and the will to change Overnight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' MORE or Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinBarr’s first task as AG: Look at former FBI leaders’ conduct 5 myths about William Barr William Barr's only 'flaw' is that he was nominated by Trump MORE would cause chaos in Washington and dim Republican hopes of holding their congressional majorities.

ADVERTISEMENT

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyCongress should stop tariff power grab, bring balance to U.S. trade policy Graham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Grassley to test GOP on lowering drug prices 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 CornynGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Trump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Texas governor, top lawmakers tell Trump not to use hurricane relief funds to build border wall MORE (Texas).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Senate GOP eyes 'nuclear option' for Trump nominees next week Taiwan’s President Tsai should be invited to address Congress 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) GaetzMaduro starts new term in Venezuela facing US sanctions, lack of legitimacy abroad Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report Native American lawmaker: Haven't heard back from GOP rep who called Warren 'Sacagawea' 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 CollinsTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal 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 ZuckerbergThe free-market case for a clean slate Facebook takes down anti-NATO pages linked to Russia Congress needs to address consumer data privacy in a responsible and modern manner 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 TillisGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Centrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter GOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering MORE (R-N.C.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Barr’s first task as AG: Look at former FBI leaders’ conduct Debate builds over making Mueller report public 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerProtecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress Baldwin's Trump plays 'Deal or No Deal' with shutdown on 'Saturday Night Live' Sunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal 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