From the White House press briefing 4/10/18
Q I just want to clarify something you said earlier. You said the President believes he has the power to fire Robert Mueller, because usually, most legal experts believe that he would have to order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, and Rosenstein could, of course, refuse.
SANDERS: I know a number of individuals in the legal community, and including at the Department of Justice, that he has the power to do so. But I don’t have any further announcements on —
Q They’ve consistently said that it is. They’ve told me; I’ve asked. They’ve said it’s Rod Rosenstein oversees the Special Counsel, and only he has the power to fire the Special Counsel.
SANDERS: Again, we’ve been advised that the President certainly has the power to make that decision. I can’t go anything beyond that.
Anyone who has witnessed White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in action will recognize that these answers, from Tuesday’s White House press briefing, are as straightforward as she gets. In the wake of the FBI raid on Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, President Trump believes he can fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller and, further, he wants America to know it.
This is not entirely a surprise, nor is it new. Last June, amid reports that Mueller was investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice, Sanders, then deputy press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One that, “While the President has the right to [fire Mueller], he has no intention to do so.” It was later reported by the New York Times that the president did, in fact, try to fire Mueller at some point that same month. It may be worth noting, though, that in the Times’ reporting of the episode, Trump did not try to fire him directly. He instead ordered White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II to, in turn, get the Justice Department to dismiss Mueller; McGahn refused.
As the Times reported on Tuesday evening, Trump also sought to get rid of Mueller this past December.
Despite this history, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to rebuff calls from Minority Leader Charles Schumer to introduce bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting Mueller. McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, “I haven’t seen clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed, because I don’t think that’s going to happen. And that remains my view, that I don’t think he’s going to be removed from this office.”
Despite Sanders’s contentions, it seems clear that there is no obvious or direct path by which Trump can terminate Mueller. The federal regulations under which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller make it clear that firing authority rests with Rosenstein himself, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusal from the Russia investigation (much to Trump’s consternation). Aside from tortured routes such as Trump repealing the Special Counsel regulation itself, it would appear that most if not all roads towards firing Mueller run through Rosenstein.
It is noteworthy, then, that CNN reported Tuesday evening that, despite the White House’s invocation of the situation in Syria, Trump was postponing his trip to Latin America in part to reckon his next steps regarding the Mueller probe and what may be done with regard to the Justice Department. Another CNN report has Trump contemplating firing Rosenstein or even Sessions, as the president continues to fume over the raids on Cohen’s office and hotel room.
Firing Rosenstein might not incite the same degree of immediate outrage that would likely result from dismissing Mueller, but it would evoke memories of President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, from the depths of the Watergate scandal. Senator Schumer and other Democrats have tried to make it clear that firing Rosenstein would “Create the same Constitutional crisis as [would] firing Mueller.”
It all adds up to another week of breaking news that would be all but unimaginable in any scenario but the one in which Donald Trump inhabits the Oval Office. As Trump said on Monday regarding Mueller’s fate, echoing words similar to those he’s used before showing members of his administration the door, “We’ll see what happens.”