There’s no way. Or rather, there’s no way it lasts another year in its current fishing-expedition form. If they’re wrapping up the investigation and plan to spend most of next year prosecuting Paul Manafort, well, okay. Trump won’t mind that. He might even cite it as proof of just how innocent he is. “Bob Mueller’s a tough lawyer. The toughest! He misses nothing, as Manafort could tell you. But he didn’t find anything on me.”

But if they’re still subpoenaing documents and interviewing people in, say, March? There’s no way Trump’s wrath will be contained after he spent months being reassured by his lawyers that the probe was winding down. The only question is who, precisely, would be fired. Mueller? Rosenstein? Sessions? Some combination thereof?

We should start gaming this out because it’s coming.

People with knowledge of the investigation said it could last at least another year — pointing to ongoing cooperation from witnesses such as former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as well as a possible trial of two former Trump campaign officials. The special counsel’s office has continued to request new documents related to the campaign, and members of Mueller’s team have told others they expect to be working through much of 2018, at a minimum

When pressed by two advisers to take the matter more seriously and asked why he is so confident in his lawyers, Trump brushed off the concerns. “He is living in his own world,” the person said, predicting that Trump would erupt at some point in 2018 if the probe continued to drag on…

Legal experts said Mueller would have little incentive to clear the president or other White House aides while he is seeking more information from witnesses.

The big question this week when Trump’s lawyers meet Mueller’s lawyers is whether the part of the probe focused on the White House is winding down. How Mueller can say “yes” to that when he’s still sifting through evidence and chatting with Mike Flynn, I don’t know. New evidence incriminating the president or his top aides could emerge at any time until Mueller’s satisfied that the entire investigation has been concluded. That means his guys are very likely to disappoint Trump’s guys when they discuss this. And then Trump’s guys are going to have to disappoint the president when they relay the bad news, leaving him to stew over it for two weeks as business in Washington slows down for the holidays.

Anything could happen.

There are reasons to believe, though, that if anyone at the DOJ ends up getting the axe here, it won’t be Mueller. Rather, it’ll be Sessions or Rosenstein, both of whom reportedly come in for more criticism by Trump behind the scenes than Mueller himself does. The problem with firing Mueller is that it’ll set off a constitutional crisis without really achieving anything. The probe will go on either with a new special counsel (or with some current DOJ prosecutor assigned to oversee it). And that could create the worst of all worlds for Trump, argues Renato Mariotti:

Democrats would assume that the new special counsel was biased on Trump’s behalf, and Republicans would be less likely to distrust a new special counsel than they are to distrust Mueller, who has been the subject of intense attacks in conservative media. So if a new special counsel found that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump, the decision would be called into question, even though a similar determination by Mueller would be hard for Democrats to second-guess. On the flip side, if a new special counsel took aim at Trump and his inner circle, it would be harder for Trump to call it a “witch hunt.”

Democrats are fully invested in Mueller’s integrity by now. If he comes back and clears Trump, they’re going to have to swallow very hard and accept that. Not so if Mueller’s replaced by some Trump crony. So either Trump is exonerated by someone whom most of the country will suspect of political bias or Trump is *indicted* by that guy, which will make the charges against him seen even more damning. If even the handpicked crony who replaced Mueller thinks Trump committed a crime, the president must be awfully guilty.

So firing Mueller would be self-defeating. Firing Sessions, whom Trump views as disloyal, would doubtless be more personally satisfying to him but canning the Attorney General of the United States is serious business, particularly when POTUS’s chief grievance against him was not being more of a political henchman for him in micromanaging Mueller. It would be unpopular with parts of his base too, who value Sessions for his hawkishness on immigration. In which case, if Mueller and Sessions are both nonstarters as scapegoats, the obvious third option is Rosenstein. Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent, thinks so too:

Removing Rosenstein and replacing him with a DAG who is at the very least more sympathetic to Trump could have drastic repercussions for the investigation. The new DAG could burden the special counsel with a requirement to provide an explanation for every move he makes and then decide that they aren’t necessary or appropriate. In fact, because Mueller is required to provide the DAG with at least three days’ notice in advance of any “significant event” in the investigation, she would have plenty of time to intervene and challenge Mueller’s actions (and a less scrupulous DAG could even leak Mueller’s plans to the White House or others). A new DAG would even have the ultimate, er, trump card: She could decide at some point that the investigation should not even continue at all.

Firing Rosenstein would solve Trump’s problems by placing a loyalist in charge of Mueller while leaving the special counsel and the AG in place. There’ll be a firestorm within the political class if he does it since it would be obvious what such a move was designed to achieve, but most of the public will be left wondering what the fuss is about. Mueller’s still there, right? Sessions is still there? Well, then so what? The middle managers aren’t important. That’s not true in this case, as Rangappa explains, but if Trump is trying to tighten his grip on Russiagate with the least amount of political blowback, firing Rosenstein seems like the most obvious choice.

Or maybe he won’t fire anyone. Maybe all of the attacks on Mueller’s integrity lately are just laying the political groundwork for a series of pardons. That would be the smartest and safest move Trump could make since the president’s pardon power is plenary. He could use it selectively too to try to create a public perception that the pardons are kinda sorta based on merit, not raw favoritism. Mike Flynn gets a pardon, Jared (if/when he’s indicted) gets a pardon, but Manafort and Papadopoulos? Nah. That’s serious business! They need to face the music.