The idea that Donald Trump might fire—or try to fire—Special Counsel Robert Mueller has bubbled up enough times to seem possible, but still improbable. For one thing (as Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, among others, can attest) press reports that this president might fire someone are frequently wrong. For another, it seemed that even Trump was prudent enough to avoid making the mistake that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Yet Trump has a knack for making the wildly implausible suddenly imminent. In the last 36 hours, the idea of Mueller being fired—and the political crisis it would likely set off—has become distinctly real. In an interview with The New York Times, Trump all but said he would fire Mueller if his investigation went into places Trump didn’t like. Since then, several reports have suggested that Trump’s defense strategy, as investigations probe deeper into his life and administration, is to attack Mueller and attempt to discredit him. Increasingly, the operative question seems not to be whether Trump will try to fire Mueller, but when he will do so and what will push him over the edge.
Firing Mueller would likely create a reprise of the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which Richard Nixon tried to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. When the attorney general and his deputy both refused and resigned, Nixon eventually got Solicitor General Robert Bork to do the deed. But a judge ruled the firing illegal, Cox was replaced by Leon Jaworski, and Nixon had to resign within a year.