The anticipated showdown between President Donald Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller may not happen after all.
Instead, there’s growing sentiment on Capitol Hill that the president will pull out his most famous expression to avoid a meeting with Mueller: “You’re fired!”
Many believe Trump is preparing to fire the special counsel, after news reports exposed that the president has at least floated the idea of pardoning some of his friends who have already been indicted in the sweeping probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that saw the Republican former reality-television show host upset Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I think the president’s abrupt recent actions in how he dismissed the Veterans Affairs secretary, the secretary of state [and] other key members of his Cabinet suggest that this is something he’s likely to do,” Sen. Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told reporters.
“Many lawmakers believe that it would be dreadful if he does,” Coons said.
Trump has publicly bristled at the investigation, repeatedly calling it a “witch hunt.”
In January, the New York Times reported that Trump tried to have Mueller fired shortly after the special counsel’s appointment last year. The Hill reported that Trump backed off from that demand after White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit.
Some lawmakers have also asked that Congress pass legislation that would hamper the president’s ability to fire Mueller.
Published reports have also suggested that Trump’s now-former attorney John Dowd allegedly told lawyers representing Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn — both Trump allies who are under indictment by Mueller —that the president would consider pardoning the two men if they faced legal trouble. That has led to speculation that Mueller could pursue bribery charges against Trump.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza drew a direct parallel between Trump’s situation and disgraced former President Richard Nixon, who ultimately resigned before being impeached.
When Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, he failed to drive a stake through the heart of his investigation. Propelled by appointment of a new prosecutor, congressional fortitude and public outrage, the Watergate probe continued, Cillizza said while noting the vast contrast in the political climate since then.
“Today, the political atmosphere is different enough that if Trump triggers the firing of Mueller, the fate of the Russia investigation would be thrown in doubt,” he said.
Multiple Republican lawmakers have warned Trump against sacking Mueller, including Sen. Jeff Flake, who this week invoked the potential of an impeachment “remedy” if Trump does so.
The investigation would remain within the Department of Justice, as Mueller’s is now. But the apparatus intended to ensure independence from the White House — that is, a specially appointed counsel operating with his own team — could be dissolved.
“Any Justice Department official who ensured the firing of Mueller, at Trump’s request, would likely be the one deciding how vigorously to continue the Russia probe within the department,” Cillizza said.
That official — presumably a new acting attorney general — could also appoint a new special counsel, which is what happened in 1973.
Back 45 years ago, a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill led the investigation into Republican Nixon’s cover-up of the burglary at the Watergate building of the Democratic national headquarters. Nixon’s ultimate downfall in 1974 came as Republican leaders such as Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater pressured him to resign.
Republicans control both the House and Senate today, and the party’s leaders haven’t been especially critical of Trump’s attacks on Mueller, even as they recently said the special counsel should be allowed to proceed.
“Don’t create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don’t go there,” Flake tweeted.
“With each passing day comes the possibility of additional indictments and, nearer in sight, the fall elections, when Democrats have a chance to win a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. If that happens, Democrats would have a new ability to investigate the Republican President and challenge his policies,” Cillizza said.
Since taking over from FBI Director James Comey last year, Mueller has charged 19 people, including Flynn, the former national security adviser, Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and 13 Russians for their use of social media during the campaign.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador and is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
George Papadopoulos, a former campaign foreign policy adviser, has also pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the FBI. He was convicted of lying about his interactions with foreign nationals, including people with ties to the Russian government.
If Mueller were no longer on the case, the fate of the Manafort prosecution would fall to the DOJ officials who take over the probe.
“It is difficult to predict what Trump would ultimately do about Mueller,” Cillizza said.
“But Trump has already signaled he would not shy from a politically unpopular pardon of someone caught up in Mueller’s probe.”