Trump at crisis point on Mueller

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE’s showdown with Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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 SessionsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage House gears up for Mueller testimony Trump's no racist — he's an equal opportunity offender MORE or Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWhat to expect when Mueller testifies: Not much Trump says he won't watch Mueller testimony Feds will not charge officer who killed Eric Garner MORE would cause chaos in Washington and dim Republican hopes of holding their congressional majorities.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyScandal in Puerto Rico threatens chance at statehood Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Democrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection 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 CornynGOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school MORE (Texas).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants 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) GaetzMatt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' Matt Gaetz hints prosecutor won't press charges against threatening caller for political reasons Hillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid 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 CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report 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 ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Maxine Waters says her committee will call in Zuckerberg to testify about Libra Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp 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 TillisRepublicans scramble to contain Trump fallout McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist MORE (R-N.C.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite Rubio criticizes reporters, Democrat for racism accusations against McCain 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 SchumerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US 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