Mueller probe: As Trump mulls retaliation, where do Republicans draw the line?

Some GOP strategists aren’t so sure that a Trump move against Mueller's supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, would spark a massive uproar among most Republicans on Capitol Hill.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tells reporters he's seen no clear indication Congress needs to pass legislation that would prevent the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018.

The drumbeat on the right is getting louder: President Trump should fire a key figure in the Russia investigation – not special counsel Robert Mueller, but his supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump allies say.

Their stated reason: Mr. Rosenstein has allowed Mr. Mueller to exceed his original mandate, which was to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump associates. The latest example of an expanded mandate – the FBI raid Monday on the hotel room and office of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer – infuriated the president, and boosted the argument for firing Rosenstein.

As president, Trump has the power to fire the deputy attorney general, but such a move – particularly in the service of reining in Mueller or even firing him, too – would be highly controversial. Firing Rosenstein would suggest to the president's critics that he is intent on halting or impeding an investigation that, the latest polls show, a majority of Americans support.

Caught in a squeeze are Republican lawmakers, who largely insist Trump at least wouldn’t fire Mueller. “It would be catastrophic,” says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine in an interview with the Monitor. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says Trump firing Mueller would be “suicide.”

But lawmakers from both parties had become increasingly anxious it might happen, and crafted bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting Mueller in the event that Trump moves to remove him. The so-called Mueller protection plan was headed for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote next week until partisan infighting among committee leaders threatened to derail the bill.

Important symbolism

Concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation complicate the matter, and even were it to pass both houses of Congress, Trump likely would veto it.

But proponents say the effort remains important, as a signal to the president and the American people that the legislative branch is alive to its role in the US system of checks and balances.

At its heart, the legislation matters as a symbolic gesture – an attempt to reassure the public that honesty, integrity, and the rule of law are paramount at a time of uncertainty.

“Because the political symbolism matters here, it would be most meaningful if Congress can generate a bill with some significant bipartisan support, even if it doesn’t have a veto-proof majority behind it,” says Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “Even a simple resolution expressing congressional belief in the importance of a thorough and good-faith investigation would be useful, from that perspective.”

The “unjustified removal” of Mueller would cross a congressional red line, and would be politically costly, says Professor Whittington.  

Echoes of President Richard Nixon and the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which an embattled president ordered the firing of the special prosecutor, would ring loudly.

“The story would be, ‘He’s another Nixon; he’s trying to hide something,’ ” says political expert William Schneider, a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But some Republican strategists aren’t so sure that a Trump move against a top Department of Justice figure – especially Rosenstein – would spark a massive uproar among most Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“They will feel they have no choice but to fall in line,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the CivicForumPAC.

Reliance on Trump's base

Rick Tyler, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, says he thinks Trump has already decided to fire Rosenstein, and is just waiting for the right moment. And when it happens, he says, don’t expect a big outcry from Republicans.

“If you go up to Congress right now, they will say, ‘This would be the end of his presidency,’ ” says Mr. Tyler. “Why? Because they don’t want to be held accountable for when he does fire Rosenstein…. But Trump believes that if he does this, nothing will happen. And I believe that.”

Buttressing Trump is the loyalty of his political base – the 20 to 30 percent of the electorate that strongly supports him, almost no matter what. It is those base supporters who form the nucleus of support for Republicans in the House and Senate, making it hard for them to stray too far from the president.

Trump has plenty of reason to believe he could fire Rosenstein without mortally wounding his presidency, Tyler says. He fired James Comey as head of the FBI last May, and the ensuing uproar eventually subsided. Another target of presidential ire, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, was fired last month by Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions – and Congress shrugged.

Mr. Comey’s return to the public spotlight – with unflattering details about Trump leaking from Comey's soon-to-be-released tell-all book – has given way to more presidential agita. On Twitter Friday morning, Trump called Comey an “untruthful slime ball.” It could be harmless venting, but it could also signal another descent into recriminations over what he sees as the “witch hunt” of the Mueller investigation.

Pardon of loyal Scooter Libby

Trump’s announcement Friday that he had pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby is more significant. Mr. Libby, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted in 2007 of multiple crimes, including perjury before a grand jury. Trump’s pardon of Libby represents a reward to someone who was loyal to his boss, and sends a powerful message to all of Trump’s associates who face legal trouble today.

But for Trump himself, the present danger of the Mueller investigation remains. And even if he can fire Rosenstein without facing major political consequences, action against Mueller himself would be highly risky. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say Trump should not fire Mueller, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a Trump confidant and critic of Mueller’s aggressive tactics, told the Boston Globe this week that he “would certainly advise [Trump] not to fire anybody,” even though, in Mr. Dershowitz’s view, he has “the right to seek the firing of anybody in the executive branch.”

“As an American citizen, I’m concerned about what it would do to divide America,” Dershowitz said. “I would rather see actions that bring us together than actions that would divide us.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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