How Long Can the President's Aides Restrain Him?

The president may have been dissuaded from firing Robert Mueller, but the episode makes clear how little stands between the president and disaster.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Thursday’s revelation that President Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in June 2017 is important, but not shocking. Around the time of the attempted dismissal, Trump surrogates were raising the idea in public, and news reports said he was considering the move. The White House was careful to say that while the president was not considering a firing, he certainly would be within his rights. The following month, he implied in an interview with The New York Times that he might fire Mueller if he poked into personal finances.

What is a little surprising is that Trump backed down. White House Counsel Don McGahn reportedly refused to carry out the firing, and threatened to resign instead. Trump decided not to act. Or is it that surprising? This is at least the third occasion on which Trump has tried to force the hand of an aide, and then acquiesced when he was told no.

In spring 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was under pressure to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference into the election, after it became clear he had omitted several contacts with Russians during the Trump campaign from his disclosures to the Senate during the confirmation process. Trump sent McGahn to try to convince Sessions not to recuse himself. But although Sessions had not yet announced it, he had already decided he needed to step away, the Times reported: “After Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that career Justice Department officials had said he should step aside, Mr. McGahn said he understood and backed down.” That enraged Trump, who has continued to periodically blast Sessions’s recusal in interviews, but the president did not fire Sessions or McGahn, and in fact he reportedly rejected a resignation letter from the attorney general in May.

Earlier this week, Axios reported that Trump had also sought to have Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe fired. The president is fixated on McCabe, a holdover from James Comey’s directorship whose wife ran for state senate in Virginia as a Democrat. According to Jonathan Swan, Sessions pressured FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump appointed to replace the fired Comey, to dismiss McCabe. But Wray refused, so Sessions backed off and told McGahn. Again, Trump has not pushed the issue.

That’s three cases in which Trump has backed down when told no. Another, marginal case is that of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Like Sessions, he’s been subject to a barrage of public criticism from the president. In the same interview in which he implied he might fire Mueller, Trump referred to Sessions’s “deputy he hardly knew, and that’s Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore. There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any.” (In fact, Trump nominated Rosenstein, who is a Republican.) The Times story on the attempted Mueller firing reports that Trump also considered firing Rosenstein. But that hasn’t happened either.

Trump has shown a notable aversion to firing anyone—he was slow to actually dismiss campaign aides, preferring to marginalize them until they left; he has not axed Sessions, despite the frequent complaints; National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn was not fired when Trump learned he had lied to Vice President Pence, but only after The Washington Post reported that fact. And he has blasted other senior officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser.

But these cases also suggest that Trump’s impetuousness can be somewhat controlled by simply telling him no. The White House counsel seems to have grasped that by June. “Mr. McGahn also told White House officials that Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own,” the Times reported. Since then, there seems to be a greater willingness by staff to contradict Trump.

Several times in recent weeks, staff and aides have been bold in speaking up. In the past, Trump’s tweets have reoriented administration policy on a dime. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear how this works earlier this month. “My staff usually has to print his tweets out and hand them to me,” he said, and then he thinks, “How do we take that and now use it?”

But when Trump contradicted the administration line in reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he was instead obliged to walk back that view in another tweet nearly two hours later. When he nearly struck a deal with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on immigration, Chief of Staff John Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller reportedly put the kibosh on it, calling Schumer to say there was no deal.

If Trump is so easily swayed, however, it raises a pair of questions. One is what would have happened if someone on his team had stood up to him earlier. How many of Trump’s early self-inflicted wounds, caused by his impulsive decisions, might have been avoided if someone had simply told him no? Mueller’s appointment stemmed (tortuously) from Trump’s decision to fire Comey. What if he had been talked out of that decision, perhaps with a resignation ultimatum? (Some staffers did oppose the move at the time, while others went along; no one resigned.)

If it is the case that Trump’s furies can sometimes be easily channeled, that also raises a more troubling question: How little stands between the president and a much greater disaster? A Mueller firing would have likely been a political disaster, and perhaps even a constitutional crisis. It would not, however, involve war. How thin is the line that protects the country from Trump impulsively launching a military strike? As unsettling as Trump’s warnings of “fire and fury” against North Korea were at the time, the thought that the only thing preventing a sudden strike might be resignation threats by top advisers is even more worrisome. A president whose decisions on pivotal issues can be so easily derailed is not a president whose judgment is reliable.