Why do Donald Trump and his advisors keep floating the possibility of firing Robert Mueller, an act that would spark the greatest constitutional crisis since Watergate, perhaps the greatest in modern American history?
Partly, it’s simple rage. Mueller threatens Trump. And when Trump sees someone as a threat, he tries to discredit and destroy them—conventional norms of propriety, decency and legality be damned.
But there’s another, more calculated, reason. Trump and his advisors may genuinely believe that firing Mueller is a smart move. And if you put morality aside, and see the question in nakedly political terms, they may be right.
The chances that Mueller will uncover something damning seem very high. Trump has already admitted to firing former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted to welcoming the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from people he believed were representatives of the Russian government. Even if Mueller doesn’t accuse anyone of a crime, he’s likely to paint a brutal picture. And that’s just on the question of election collusion and obstruction of justice. If Mueller uses Russia to segue into Trump’s business dealings, who knows what he might find. An all-star team of legal and financial sleuths, with unlimited time and money, and the ability to subpoena documents and people, have been let loose on the affairs of a man whose own autobiographer called him a “sociopath.” No wonder Trump is scared.
For Trump, therefore, the key question is: Is it better to force a crisis by firing Mueller now, or wait for the crisis that hits when Mueller releases his findings? In narrowly political terms, he might think there’s an advantage to acting now.
First, and most obviously, Mueller won’t have laid out his case. To be sure, were Mueller fired, he and his aides would likely disseminate whatever information they had uncovered. But the sooner Trump acts, the less they’ll have to disseminate.
Second, Trump might believe it’s in his interest to provoke a showdown while ordinary Republicans are still on his side. As of now, they are. More than eighty percent of Republicans approve of his job performance. Over the next year or two, that number is more likely to go down than up, and the further it falls, the less fearful congressional Republicans will be to break with Trump and potentially even support impeachment.
If Trump fired Mueller, Republicans in Congress would bark. But they barked when he fired James Comey too, and never bit. And the GOP’s reaction to White House trial balloons about ousting Mueller hasn’t exactly been overwhelming. Last Thursday, a GOP senator told CNN that “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling.” But he spoke on background, as did three of the four Republican Senators who the network corralled. At least one House Republican is already trumpeting the White House’s anti-Mueller talking points. “Bob Mueller’s obviously intent on hiring people who are antagonistic toward this administration. He’s one of Mr. Comey’s closest friends, and it looks like there’s a deliberate orchestration to damage or undermine the president regardless of the basic facts,” declared Arizona Representative Trent Franks in an interview with Politico. Without explicitly endorsing Mueller’s firing, Franks called for ending the “mindless charade.”
The third reason Trump might decide to provoke a showdown now is that Republicans still dominate Congress. By the time Mueller releases his findings, Democrats could have a majority in the House, which would allow them to pass impeachment on a party line vote. Today they can’t.
Finally, provoking a confrontation now would be better for Trump’s family. Even if firing Mueller led to Trump’s impeachment, stopping his investigation might spare Jr. and Jared Kushner prosecution. Which is why Kushner—who reportedly pushed Trump to fire Comey—might see it in his self-interest to urge Mueller’s firing too. Most commentators consider Trump’s firing of Comey to be an epic mistake, which Trump should not repeat. But there’s no evidence that Trump himself sees it that way. Nor does he appear to regret firing US Attorney Preet Bharara, who was reportedly investigating his business affairs. Bloomberg last week reported that Mueller has taken over that investigation, which makes him even more of a threat.
Trump couldn’t fire Mueller directly. He’d have find an acting attorney general willing to do so. His efforts to find one would likely provoke a Saturday Night Massacre-style cascade of resignations, which would appall Trump’s critics. But Trump might not mind. He’d consider getting rid of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to be a bonus. As Trump’s recent comments to The New York Times about Jeff Sessions make clear, what he wants above all at the Justice Department is personal loyalty. Firing Mueller might help achieve that too.
Despite all this, I still can’t quite fathom Trump firing Mueller. But this represents my own failure of imagination. After all, I couldn’t quite imagine him winning the nomination or the presidency either. I couldn’t quite imagine him responding to the San Bernardino attack by proposing a ban on Muslim immigration. I couldn’t quite imagine him lashing out at gold star parents. Or responding to criticisms on Morning Joe by viciously mocking Mika Brzezinski’s alleged plastic surgery. Or firing Comey.
I have over the course of my life internalized certain norms about what is and is not politically possible in my country. Trump has transgressed them again and again. He has transgressed them and won. And he seems to believe that it is partly because he has transgressed them that he has won. Despite everything, I can’t quite imagine him taking the next step. But there’s no reason to believe that he is similarly constrained.