If Trump wanted to fire Mueller once, could he try again?
Last summer, Donald Trump, who is America’s chief law-enforcement officer, tried to fire the federal appointee overseeing an investigation into whether the president or his advisers had broken the law.
When Trump angled for Robert Mueller’s head last year, according to a report from The New York Times, he reasoned that he was within his rights because the special counsel had too many conflicts to impartially run the Justice Department’s probe of possible wrongdoing involving Russia and Trump’s campaign.
Trump sorted Mueller’s conflicts into three neat baskets: money – Trump claimed Mueller gave up his membership at a Trump golf course over a dispute about fees, which Mueller’s spokesman said wasn’t true; family – Mueller had worked at a firm that had represented Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and work – Mueller had interviewed for the FBI’s top job a day before he was appointed as special counsel.
None of those issues compromised Mueller in any meaningful way. Trump must have known this. But the president, a survivor to his core, had to find some way of explaining why he was trying to escape the clutches of an obstruction of justice investigation by apparently obstructing justice.
Trump’s White House counsel, Donald McGahn, saw this overreach for exactly what it was and threatened to quit unless Trump backed down. And so Trump backed down, according to the Times.
However, critics argue that the president will not remain subdued for very long.
All of this happened last June. Since then, Mueller has indicted or secured guilty pleas from four former Trump insiders for a variety of crimes. He is conducting interviews with senior White House officials and a meeting with the president is apparently on the horizon.
As the temperature of his investigation rises, some expect the president to act in increasingly volatile ways and even stretch the boundaries of the law to counter Mueller’s probe.
Trump has the power to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official overseeing Mueller’s probe, if Rosenstein doesn’t obey a request to fire Mueller.
Trump could then tear through the Justice Department’s senior ranks, firing people until he finds one who would comply with his demands.
Although there’s some debate among legal scholars about how much latitude the president would have for such a purge, Trump’s previous manoeuvring in this investigation suggests he believes he can do almost whatever he wants. That might explain why the Times report is surfacing now.
Perhaps White House officials, maybe even McGahn himself, are worried that the president is set again on toppling Mueller and they want to stop it Trump is a safe distance away in Switzerland at the World Economic Forum.
McGahn also has much on the line himself.
Last January he met Sally Yates, the acting attorney general at the time, after she told him that Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the White House about his contacts with a Russian official.
McGahn invited Yates back the next day and asked her why the Justice Department cared if White House officials were lying to one another.
Yates said that it would possibly give the Russians leverage to blackmail Flynn.
As it turned out, the White House knew for weeks that Flynn had not been truthful about his communications with Russia – and neither McGahn nor Trump apparently felt concerned enough to force him out.
If McGahn is now in Mueller’s crosshairs, he might have decided that the simplest solution is to cooperate with the probe and turn over information in exchange for gentler treatment.
In that scenario, McGahn becomes the source, directly or indirectly, of all kinds of interesting stuff for investigators and the media to ponder.
As the White House gets rattled further, Trump may test how deeply Congress believes in and respects the rule of law and Republicans and Democrats may be faced with the president trying to fire the special counsel again – especially if Mueller’s probe ensnares any of the Trumps.