Democrats and Republicans alike are growing increasingly strident with their warnings to the White House that Washington would reach a political breaking point — with no turning back for President Donald Trump — if he tries to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
“Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who in the late 1990s served as a House impeachment manager against President Bill Clinton, told reporters on Thursday.
“Honestly, it’d be a full blown constitutional crisis,” cautioned Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Trump has long complained about the multiple probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which have heightened tensions in Washington and at times distracted the White House from its policy goals. While Trump has not said he plans to fire the special counsel, his top aides have acknowledged the subject has come up.
The many rumblings about Mueller’s future — which intensified over the last week after Trump publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the whole Russia affair — could unite lawmakers from both parties in a way few issues have.
Graham on Thursday outlined bipartisan legislation that would block Trump from firing the special counsel — by requiring a judicial review first. And while that sounds like a long shot in a Congress controlled by Republicans, and with the president’s veto pen waiting, lawmakers aren’t backing down from their own investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
In an interview Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said his investigation with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner would continue no matter what Trump did to Mueller.
“I think there are a number of options” for Congress if Mueller did get fired, Burr said, though he would not offer any details.
“I’d say the easiest way is to make sure there is no change in the special counsel,” he added. “I’m just hopeful they won’t choose that route to go down.”
Firing Mueller wouldn’t end the FBI investigation either. The agents assigned to the Russia election meddling case would keep plugging away at their leads, law enforcement sources say.
“Getting rid of Mueller doesn’t eliminate the wheels in motion,” said Asha Rangappa, an associate dean at Yale Law School and a former special agent in the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
Trump, his lawyers and his surrogates have for weeks tried to publicly discredit Mueller’s effort, in particular several attorneys he’s brought onto the task force who have made campaign contributions to Democrats. The Republican president’s lawyer has also questioned the scope of the Mueller probe as it reportedly looks into Trump’s business dealings dating back well before he ran for the presidency. And by bashing Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation, as well as other moves by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump has sent repeated signals he could be laying the groundwork to kill the Mueller probe.
To do that, Trump could order his Justice Department leadership to get rid of the special counsel, and then fire and replace them until they follow his instructions — much as President Richard Nixon did in the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
In an interview with the New York Times last week, Trump sidestepped a direct question about whether he would consider firing Mueller.
“I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.
But the new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in a Tuesday morning interview that the subject has come up during his talks with Trump.
“I’ll be on the record with this: In candid conversations with the president, I’ve said, ‘Why would you fire him?’” Scaramucci said.
Democrats and even some Republicans aren’t buying those assurances.
“If I were on White House staff I’d be concerned about public perception of interrupting that process,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican freshman who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. “I just think they need to proceed very carefully.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he’s been in talks with Graham and other senators about their legislative effort, which would require the courts to review any White House attempt to fire a special counsel investigating a president.
“There are definitely conversations about what can and should be done if Robert Mueller is fired because the president has raised it implicitly in some of his statements,” Blumenthal said.
Trump’s public humiliation of Sessions this week has raised speculation he might fire his attorney general. Legal experts say Sessions was right to recuse himself since he played a public role in Trump’s 2016 campaign, but Trump said he wouldn’t have picked the Alabama Republican if he’d known Sessions would step back from the investigation.
For now, Sessions is still on the job, but lawmakers said under no circumstances should Trump try to dump him while Congress is out of town in August. A recess appointee, who could serve for a period without being confirmed by the Senate, would be unacceptable, they said.
“Let me say, if such a situation arises, Democrats would use every tool in our toolbox to stymie such a recess appointment,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned in a Senate floor speech this week.
“If you’re thinking of making a recess appointment to push out the Attorney General, forget about it. The presidency isn’t a bull, and this country isn’t a china shop,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and frequent Trump critic, said Thursday.
Sessions’ defenders also included Graham, who warned Trump there would be “holy hell to pay” if he tried to fire him, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who has vowed not to hold any confirmation hearings this year to replace Sessions if he loses his job.
Still, several Republicans interviewed Thursday downplayed the notion that Mueller would be fired — despite Graham’s dire public warnings.
“Good for Lindsey Graham,” said Colorado GOP Rep. Kenneth Buck, another member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s just a distraction I’m not going to get distracted by.”
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who flirted with taking a Trump Cabinet appointment, said he’d spoken with Graham about his legislation but refused to say whether he supported the concept until he’d read it closer.
“There cannot be a real discussion taking place at the White House about firing Mueller. Since that cannot possibly be true there’s no reason to answer a question based on that conjecture,” Corker said.
Across the Capitol, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a prominent Trump supporter, said lawmakers would make better use of their time by trying to reign in Mueller through legislation that requires him to hire nonpartisan attorneys who haven’t made campaign contributions. He also wants a deadline established for Mueller’s investigation, limits over which issues he can cover and a budget stating how much money can be spent on the investigation.
“Congress’ action shouldn’t be so much trying to send a message to the president [about firing Mueller] should that happen as it is to send a message to Mueller,” he said.