This rumor’s oddly specific, no? “Trump’s going to fire Mueller” has been daily chatter since May. “Trump’s going to fire Mueller this Friday” has not. That suggests Democrat Jackie Speier, a member of the House Intel Committee, knows something.
Or does it? This smells like it’s based not on inside information but on some educated guesswork about Trump’s intentions. Various papers have reported that his lawyers are keeping him calm by assuring him that the Russiagate investigation will wrap up by the end of the year. (Whether they have any reason to believe that or are just BSing POTUS to soothe him is a separate question.) Mueller’s office has finished interviewing White House personnel and is planning to meet with Trump’s lawyers soon, possibly even this week. Team Trump will press them to say how much longer the probe will continue and, crucially, whether they’re looking at charging Trump with anything. *If* the answer makes them unhappy, Trump may finally flip his lid and nuke the special counsel. And if he decides to do that, when’s the most likely day that he’ll do it?
Why, Friday, of course. Friday afternoon is always the best day to dump bad news since Americans are beginning to tune out for the weekend. But Friday, December 22nd, is special. It’s the last business day before a long Christmas weekend and a very slow pre-New-Year’s week. The backlash to firing Mueller will be ferocious no matter what but doing it over the holidays will dampen the ferocity since most of the country will be relaxing and enjoying itself. If you’re going to trigger a constitutional crisis, best to do it when Americans are in a good mood and focused on family fun.
There’s another reason why Speier might think Mueller’s firing is imminent. With all the attacks lately on the integrity of Mueller’s operation, from Peter Strzok’s “insurance policy” text to his mistress to Andrew Weissmann congratulating Sally Yates for refusing to carry out Trump’s immigration policy to the letter sent yesterday by Trump’s lawyers accusing Mueller of illegally obtaining the Trump transition team’s emails, POTUS may feel that this is an opportune moment to can him. If he wants his presidency to survive the backlash, he needs Republicans united behind him. They’re probably more united than usual lately on terminating Mueller because of all those damaging reports.
In fact, there’s circumstantial evidence that Republicans in Congress may be preparing to wrap up the House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations of Russiagate by the end of the year. If that’s true, Democrats might suspect that congressional GOPers are quietly coordinating with Trump to end all arms of the probe at the same time, including the special counsel’s:
Yet, Republicans have scheduled no witnesses after next Friday and none in 2017. We have dozens of outstanding witnesses on key aspects of our investigation that they refuse to contact and many document requests they continue to sit on.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) December 15, 2017
Next week, they scheduled critical witness interviews out of state, when we are voting on the tax bill and vital government funding bills and no Members will be able to ask questions, in an effort to squeeze them in before end of year.
These witnesses are willing to come to DC.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) December 15, 2017
Schiff’s a highly partisan Democrat but there’s no doubt Republicans of all stripes will begin to complain more loudly in the new year about the investigation dragging on into 2018. Last night on Trump’s favorite network, one host explicitly referred to Mueller’s probe as a “coup.” Before much longer most of conservative media will be overtly demanding that he fire Mueller and shut down the Russiagate probe. You can see why Speier and Schiff think the axe may fall sooner rather than later.
Question, though: If the rumor about Friday were based on anything concrete, it surely would have leaked already from Republican sources, no? The White House is a sieve. The NYT would already have 20 sources on background whispering about it. Also, if Trump wants to rein in Mueller, he has options he could use short of the dubious nuclear one. He could replace Jeff Sessions as AG with a crony like Chris Christie, who might give Mueller a deadline or cut his spending. (That would also solve the problem of what happens if Trump fires Mueller and then a new deputy AG appoints a new special counsel. Trump wants the investigation to end, period, not for it to be taken over by a new prosecutor.) He could issue blanket pardons to everyone involved in Russiagate in the interest of the country needing to move on and “heal” or whatever. The political backlash would be nasty and the pardons wouldn’t help people like Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn elude state charges, but few question the president’s constitutional power to pardon his lackeys if he’s willing to take the political heat for it. He could also ask for a special counsel to, er, investigate the special counsel, assuming DOJ rules would permit that.
Trump could also do something unorthodox like giving Mueller a deadline of his own. “Americans demanded a thorough investigation of Russian interference,” he might say, “and that’s what they’ve received. I and my staff have complied with every request made of us by the special counsel. At the same time, our country can’t tolerate open-ended fishing expeditions by prosecutors at the expense of its political leaders, especially when there are credible suspicions of partisan motives. So I’m requesting that the special counsel end his investigation and file any charges for which he believes there’s probable cause by January 20, 2018, the one-year anniversary of my inauguration.” The drawback of doing that is that it’d create a monthlong political crisis about Mueller’s impending firing, even if Trump doesn’t explicitly threaten to fire him in making his announcement. But it’d also put Trump’s objections on more reasonable ground. Instead of canning Mueller abruptly and impetuously, Trump would be giving him another month to wind things down on his own terms and to indict whoever else he wants to indict in the meantime. If Mueller refuses to shut down by the deadline and then Trump fires him, the public’s bound to see that as more legitimate than it would if POTUS suddenly woke up tomorrow and tweeted out “You’re fired!”
Trump’s lawyer said yesterday in response to Speier’s “rumor” that no consideration is being given to firing Mueller. Probably true — for now. Check back in a month, though. Exit question via Rich Lowry: If, as most Republicans believe, Mueller will eventually vindicate Trump, why the hell would POTUS ever consider firing him? There’s a not-that-improbable scenario here in which Trump really is innocent of conspiring with Russia but he ends up impeached anyway next by a Democratic House for obstruction of justice because he couldn’t resist firing the guy who would have cleared him of conspiring with Russia.