Firing Mueller becoming more difficult for Trump

Firing Mueller becoming more difficult for Trump
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Special counsel Robert Mueller put himself in a protected position on Monday morning when he publicly revealed the first charges in his controversial and wide-ranging investigation into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.

President Trump has long fumed that the investigation is a “witch hunt” engineered by his political enemies, sparking speculation that he will try to fire the special counsel.  

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But now that Mueller has produced a guilty plea — from a member of Trump’s campaign — dismissing the former FBI director would almost certainly ignite an untenable political inferno.

“It’s fair to say ... Mr. Mueller has made it so that it would be political suicide for the president to fire him,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer.

Senate Republicans sent a clear and immediate message in the wake of Mueller’s announcement: Don’t fire Bob Mueller.

“At this moment, I would think that would be a big mistake,” Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMcConnell: Senate won't override Trump veto on shutdown fight Senate immigration talks fall apart Emergency declaration option for wall tests GOP MORE (R-Mo.) said Tuesday.

“It’s important to let our legal system run its course,” 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) said in a statement.

For now, the White House appears to be heeding the message — despite calls from some on the right for Mueller’s head.

Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer overseeing issues related to the Russia probes, told reporters that “there are no discussions and there is no consideration being given to terminating Mueller.”

“Nothing about today’s events alters anything related to our engagement with the special counsel, with whom we continue to cooperate,” Cobb said.

Even Stephen Bannon, the firebrand Breitbart mogul and one-time White House chief strategist, is not advocating firing Mueller, arguing instead that the president should do more to rein in the scope of the special counsel’s sprawling investigation.

But Trump has pulled shock dismissals before. He touched off a firestorm in May when he fired former FBI Director James Comey, who was then in charge of the probe — a decision that ultimately led to the appointment of the special counsel.

“In any real world, firing Mueller after he has brought charges against employees of Trump’s campaign and while he’s still investigating the president would be unimaginable,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman under former President Obama.

“But Trump doesn’t always live in the real world, and he often does things that verge on self-harm, as firing Mueller would be.” 

In back-to-back bombshells on Monday, Mueller indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign aide Richard Gates on charges that include money laundering and tax fraud, and announced that another Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russians.

The Justice Department regulations that govern the special counsel position permit the firing of the special counsel, but only for “good cause” and by the “personal action” of the attorney general — in this case, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, since 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 has recused himself from the investigation.

But Trump could order Rosenstein to fire Mueller. He could also theoretically issue an executive order abolishing the office of the special counsel — a legally riskier move that might not stand up in court.

There is also a legal argument that Trump could simply bypass the Justice Department regulations and fire Mueller himself: Under the Constitution, the president is vested with the ultimate law enforcement power.

If Rosenstein were to follow a theoretical presidential order to dismiss the special counsel, Mueller could launch a legal challenge to his ouster. 

Republicans have largely dismissed calls from Democrats for legislation to protect Mueller as his investigation ramps up. Even some of Trump’s staunchest critics in the Senate — like Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerThe Memo: Romney moves stir worries in Trump World Senate GOP names first female members to Judiciary panel Former US special envoy to anti-ISIS coalition joins Stanford University as lecturer MORE (R-Tenn.) — have said they see no indication that the special counsel’s job is in jeopardy.

“I don’t feel an urgent need to pass that law until you show me that Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy,” Sen. 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.), a co-sponsor of one of the bills shielding Mueller, told reporters Monday evening.

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.) on Tuesday implied that the Senate would not have time to take up either of the two Mueller bills this year.

One way Trump could try to defang Mueller — without firing him — is to push Congress to defund the probe. Trump on Friday tweeted about the “costly” investigation, and some conservatives have argued that it is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Mueller is required to produce a public expense report every six months — the first report is currently winding its way through a Justice Department review — giving critics repeated opportunities to bludgeon the special counsel with his budget.

But Congress has few avenues to cut off Mueller’s funding. His budget is not part of the annual Justice Department funding package that Congress approves, but instead comes from a permanent Treasury Department account. And the Justice regulations stipulate that he must be provided “all appropriate resources” to conduct this investigation.

The only way Congress could cut off Mueller’s cash flow would likely be passing a stand-alone bill or attaching a rider to a spending bill blocking money for the investigation.

But there appears to be little appetite amongst Republican leadership to take that step.

Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida governor suspends Palm Beach County elections supervisor Florida governor threatens Airbnb over West Bank settlements Florida governor announces sheriff's suspension over Parkland shooting MORE (R-Fla.) in August tried to attach an amendment to a House spending package that would have put a six-month limit on Mueller’s investigation and blocked him from investigating conduct that occurred prior to March 2015. House leadership did not allow the amendment to come to the floor for a vote.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said Tuesday that he would keep an eye on the spending but didn’t want to impede Mueller.

“I don’t want to deny the Justice Department or the special counsel the resources they need. Now, I don’t want to see them just go hog wild and waste money either, but I don’t want to try to do anything to hurt [them],” he said.

If Trump does try to fire Mueller, Congress is likely the last bastion against his dismissal.

“Bottom line, it should be an impeachable offense,” Miller, the former Justice Department spokesman, said. “The question is whether Republicans would stand up to him and do something about it.”

Jordain Carney and Jonathan Easley contributed.