The instability in the White House deepened in the past two weeks with the firings of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Veteran Affairs David Shulkin. Amid this string of high-profile departures, rumors circulated that President Donald Trump is considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election is reportedly zeroing in on senior Trump administration officials.
Trump lacks the direct authority to fire Mueller himself, as does Attorney General Jeff Sessions who recused himself from the Russia investigation last year. But Trump could orchestrate Mueller’s dismissal by ordering a top-ranking Justice Department official to fire Mueller, and firing those officials who refuse, until someone agrees. Such a sequence would be reminiscent of the notorious “Saturday Night Massacre” in the final year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, when Nixon forced the firing of the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
If Trump follows in Nixon’s footsteps and fires Mueller, it will be time to discuss the “i-word.” Yes, impeachment. Many Democratic members of Congress have already called for Trump’s impeachment, but Democratic Congressional leaders have pushed back strongly against impeachment, and rightfully so. Trump has made many poor decisions in his short time as president, but none warranting impeachment. That changes if Trump decides to fire Mueller.
Trump has not tried to hide his disdain for Mueller’s investigation. He has repeatedly belittled the probe as a “witch hunt” and recently called for a new special prosecutor to scrutinize alleged bias at the Justice Department, including within Mueller’s investigation. The idea of a new special prosecutor to investigate the special counsel is every bit as ludicrous as it sounds, especially when considering Mueller’s hard-earned reputation for integrity and professionalism. On Saturday, Sessions declined to name a new special prosecutor, reigniting tension between Sessions and Trump.
Trump has long loathed Mueller’s investigation, but his irritation will likely only grow now that Mueller has subpoenaed The Trump Organization and is focusing in on Trump’s inner circle. In addition, Mueller’s face-to-face interview of Trump looms in the distance. With Trump’s growing animosity toward Mueller, Sessions and the Justice Department in general, it appears distinctly possible that Trump may move to fire Mueller, as he has long yearned to do.
Unlike cabinet secretaries and White House officials, special prosecutors do not serve at the pleasure of the president. Mueller can only be legally fired with just cause, and despite repeated attempts by many of the right wing to discredit his investigation, no such legitimate cause exists. Mueller is a distinguished attorney and a Bush-era former FBI Director (and a lifelong Republican). His sole loyalty is to the law, and the notion that his investigation is biased, as has been claimed by both right-wing pundits and politicians, simply doesn’t hold water.
Trump’s true motive to fire Mueller is clear: to end the investigation before it could uncover anything incriminating about his senior aides or himself. If Trump’s campaign did not collude, or conspire to collude, with Russia to win the election, then the president can rest assured that Mueller’s probe will vindicate him. This fact is what makes it so alarming, if not outright suspicious, that Trump is considering firing Mueller in the first place. Certainly, an unresolved special investigation is a political nuisance, but, as Trump’s advisors have surely told him, the political fallout would be far worse if Trump fired Mueller, raising again the question of why Trump would even consider doing so.
This speculation, though, is hardly a sufficient replacement for the concrete answers that Mueller’s probe promises to provide. Furthermore, with the way that the Congressional inquiries into Russian interference have gone, the Mueller investigation is likely the only one that will come to a reliable conclusion. The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation devolved into a partisan sham, with both parties issuing their own concluding reports last month. Later, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas admitted to the media that the committee did not even try to fully investigate collusion. The Senate’s investigation, while still ongoing, has also run into partisan divisions.
The importance of Mueller’s investigation cannot be understated, as it is the only one capable of definitively determining whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. This fact, coupled with the absence of a justifiable reason to terminate Mueller’s investigation, is why firing Mueller would amount to a clear case of obstruction of justice.
Impeachment is not a word that should be thrown around lightly, nor a political weapon to be used casually. But no one, including the president, is above the law. That principle has guided American politics since the Nixon era and will be tested if Trump decides to fire Mueller. Thus far, Trump has done nothing to warrant impeachment. He has committed (that we know of) no high crimes or misdemeanors. However, if Trump decides to fire Mueller, he will have obstructed justice, a grave offense and one worthy of impeachment.
Political realities are a delicate matter. Trump enjoys Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and could foreseeably dodge the natural consequences of firing a special prosecutor. While some Republicans have sharply warned Trump against doing so, others have joined Trump in criticizing Mueller and would likely rally to his side. But another political reality is that the president of the United States is under investigation for possibly colluding with a foreign government to influence his own election and is reportedly considering using his powers to prematurely end that investigation. This matter goes beyond everyday politics and extends to the integrity of our democratic institutions. Impeachment is not on the table right now, nor should it be. But should Trump fire Mueller, impeachment would be the appropriate and requisite response.
Noah Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org