Americans have become accustomed, if not resigned, to the spectacle of the president of the United States attacking his own attorney general and denouncing the investigation into possible collusion by his campaign with Russia as a "witch hunt." But this week, after the FBI executed a search warrant on the office and hotel room of Michael Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer, Donald Trump became even more unhinged, to the point of publicly speculating about firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
On Monday, before a meeting with military leaders at the White House, Trump made the outrageous assertion that the FBI "broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys — a good man. And it's a disgraceful situation." He denounced a search authorized by a federal magistrate judge as an "attack on our country." In response to a question about firing Mueller, Trump responded: "Well, I think it's a disgrace what's going on. We'll see what happens. But I think it's really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said, 'You should fire him.'"
Trump's public musing about firing Mueller, even in response to a question and even as part of a tantrum inspired by the search of his longtime lawyer's files, represents an alarming escalation of his attacks on the special counsel. Although Trump was reported to have sought Mueller's dismissal twice last year, in public he has called that story "fake news." Now he is giving it credibility.
An ominous sign that Monday's meltdown might not have been a passing phenomenon came Tuesday, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told a news briefing that the president "certainly believes he has the power" to fire Mueller — a view, she said, that's supported by "a number of individuals in the legal community … including at the Department of Justice."
Sanders' answer suggests that Trump believes he could fire Mueller directly, rather than go through the arduous process of replacing Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein or Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions with a pliable acting attorney general willing to dump the special counsel. Nevertheless, CNN reported Tuesday that Trump was thinking of firing Rosenstein.
It would be bizarre if the search of Cohen's files led Trump to try to fire Mueller. The investigation of Cohen is being led not by Mueller's office but by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan (although Mueller referred information to that office, apparently instigating the probe). But such distinctions mean little to Trump. Nor do proprieties such as the Justice Department ethics guidelines, which required Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia because Sessions had been active in the campaign. Trump continues to complain bitterly about Sessions' recusal because it set the stage for Rosenstein to appoint Mueller after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey. On Monday, Trump called Sessions' recusal "a very terrible mistake for the country."
Whatever the trigger, any move by Trump to fire Mueller or Rosenstein or otherwise undercut the special counsel's investigations — for example, by the exercise of Trump's pardon power — would amount to obstruction of justice.
Much has been written about the recent departure from the White House of staffers who restrained some of the president's worst impulses, but perhaps there remain a critical mass of advisors who could convince the president that he would be destroying his presidency if he fired Mueller. But members of Congress, particularly its somnolent Republican leaders, also have a role to play.
It isn't enough for Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to offer anodyne statements of support for Mueller's right to "do his job." They need to strenuously condemn Trump's attacks on the special counsel's investigation, vigorously support legislation to allow special counsels to appeal their dismissals in court and, last and most important, make it clear that firing Mueller will lead immediately to impeachment proceedings. If the price of such a principled stand is to alienate Trump's base, so be it.
Ideally Trump would stop ranting about Mueller and the "witch hunt" and turn his attention to his duties. But even if he continues to complain, he needs to know that acting to abort or obstruct the investigation will have grievous consequences for his presidency.