The Memo: Fears rise of Trump move against Mueller

Washington is on edge over the possibility that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization House Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Artist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 MORE could move soon to fire special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE or senior members of the Justice Department.

Some Republicans, as well as Democrats and independent observers, share the concern.

“He has entered a period of impulsiveness at DEFCON 5,” said one Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “We’re in uncharted territory, where anything can happen.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Jamil Jaffer, a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush, said a decision to fire Mueller might “very well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It would be very unwise of the president to do that.”


Jaffer, now an adjunct professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, argued that, aside from the legal and constitutional questions, such a move would likely be ineffective.

“Nothing he will do will stop the investigation going forward, whether it’s led by Bob Mueller or anybody else,” he said.

But not all Trump loyalists agree. 

Reporting by The Hill indicates that some people who have been advising Trump over the last year against firing Mueller are now beginning to shift in their view. 

Trump, who places much stock in the opinion of certain media personalities, could also be moved by the white-hot anger of figures such as Lou Dobbs, who said on his Fox Business Network show on Monday evening that he would “fire the SOB in three seconds if it were me,” in reference to Mueller. 

A GOP operative, granted anonymity to speak candidly, referred to the idea of Trump moving against Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinRosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe Judge rules former WH counsel McGahn must testify under subpoena MORE as “a high-risk strategy.” 

But, this source added, “I’m not sure you have much of a choice. Mueller has forced Trump into this position. He’s got him cornered. This [investigation] is now totally off the subject of Russian collusion and it’s aimed at the heart of the Trump Organization.”

The big change came on Monday, when news broke that the FBI had seized material belonging to Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Cohen’s office, home and a hotel room he was staying in while his home was being renovated were raided.

Soon after the news became public, a visibly angry Trump told reporters that the raids were “a disgrace” and an “attack on our country.”

The president’s anger continued into Tuesday morning when he tweeted, “Attorney–client privilege is dead,” and, a short time later, “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”

Speculation about an action against Mueller was stoked further when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday that Trump “certainly believes” he has the power to remove the special counsel.

That opinion is contrary to the legal consensus, which holds that Trump could not directly fire Mueller. Under Justice Department regulations, a special counsel is considered to be under the purview of the attorney general and can only be fired for good cause. However, because Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Rosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe MORE has recused himself from matters pertaining to Russia, Mueller’s probe is overseen by Rosenstein.

In his Monday afternoon remarks, Trump said that Sessions had made “a terrible mistake” when he recused himself and also alluded to Rosenstein’s role.

More broadly, Trump insisted that the investigators were “the most biased group of people.”

Some Republicans agree with the president.

“It does seem like they want to take down the president,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former political director in the George W. Bush administration. 

Schlapp called the Cohen raids “highly dubious or legal brinkmanship” and said the legal probes into Trump were “all looking very political.”

Asked about the idea that moving against Mueller would precipitate a constitutional crisis, Schlapp responded vigorously, “The constitutional crisis occurred yesterday when the president’s lawyer’s office was raided. That is the constitutional crisis!”

Others close to Trump argued that the feverish atmosphere was excessive.

Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a friend of the president, asserted to The Hill that Trump possesses “an uncanny ability to deal with multiple issues and remain placid and in control. I think we will see a measured response from him in the coming days over this unusual intrusion into his lawyer’s office.”

Others use more strident language, warning about the political ramifications of any move against Mueller or the other leading figures. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties Congressional leaders unite to fight for better future for America's children and families MORE (R-Iowa) said on Tuesday during a Fox Business Network interview that it would be “suicide” for Trump to fire Mueller. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said, “You can’t fire the special counsel. You just can’t,” in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

Meanwhile, another unanswered but huge question is how Republicans in Congress would react if Trump did try to get rid of Mueller.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters on Tuesday that no legislation was required to protect the special counsel because it was his view that no firing would happen.

One source who worked closely with the Trump transition team said that there would be bipartisan dissent if the president moved against Mueller — but that the pushback would have its limits.

“Would it rise to a constitutional crisis? No,” this source said. “Would there be people on both sides of the aisle who thought that it was not a good thing to do? Probably.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in national security issues, was among those asserting that Trump’s anger at the ongoing probe is evidence he is feeling the pressure. 

“Every step that the Justice Department — not just Mueller — takes that puts Trump in a perceived vise would seem to make it more likely that Sessions, Rosenstein or Mueller would be fired. Probably in a moment of emotion,” he said. “But the issue is going to be the political circumstances if any of those terminations occurred.”

The GOP operative who requested anonymity argued that the events since the start of the week might have altered everything — with unpredictable consequences.

“The raid on Cohen changed the dynamics of this investigation,” the source said. “You can now see where Trump might be in real jeopardy.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.