WASHINGTON — Some of President Trump’s most fervent supporters are ramping up demands to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller and halt the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, putting some Republicans on edge and throwing the administration into further turmoil.
The Mueller-must-go strain of commentary ballooned after Trump openly considered deposing the special counsel on Monday in the hours after FBI agents raided Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room, an aggressive tactic seen as opening a new front in the investigation into the president. The White House followed Trump’s comments by asserting Tuesday that the president has the legal authority to fire Mueller. That was certainly a welcome stance among Trump backers.
“Shut it down,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group that led the push to uncover Hillary Clinton’s State Department e-mails during the 2016 election.
Even as a handful of senior Republicans on Capitol Hill were urging caution, the drumbeat to oust Mueller has grown especially intense on Fox News, where Trump is known to get many of his ideas.
“I’d fire the SOB in three seconds if it were me,” opined conservative TV commentator Lou Dobbs of Mueller during a segment on Fox News Monday night, referring to Mueller.
Gregg Jarrett, a Fox News legal analyst, went even further, pushing for regime change at the Department of Justice.
“The attorney general is incompetent, the FBI is corrupt, and Robert Mueller and [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein are unethical and abusive of the legal process,” Jarrett said. “All of them deserve to be fired.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday that Trump “certainly believes” the president has the power to dismiss Mueller on his own.
The New York Times reported Tuesday evening that Trump had threatened to end the investigation once before. In early December, the president was furious over news reports about a new round of subpoenas from Mueller, and he told advisers Mueller’s investigation had to be shut down, the Times reported. Those news reports turned out to be erroneous.
Some specialists dispute that Trump has the authority to fire Mueller, pointing to the special counsel regulations that show Rosenstein would have to do it, since he appointed Mueller. If Trump ordered Rosenstein to fire Mueller and the request was refused, Trump would have the ability to dismiss Rosenstein and order his replacement to terminate Mueller. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe, which is another point of frustration for Trump.)
These scenarios have been chewed over repeatedly on cable news in the last two days. Trump relies on Fox for affirmation of his gut instincts and reaction to news the way other presidents have used white papers, briefing books, and polling data, making the arguments articulated by the network’s hosts and guests more potent than they would be in a typical administration.
Trusted aides who were good at calming the president, including former communications director Hope Hicks, have departed the White House, leaving a vacuum in the president’s inner circle.
Sanders, addressing reporters on Tuesday, criticized the Mueller investigation. “The president has been clear that he thinks this has gone too far, and beyond that I don’t have anything to add,” Sanders said. “I think the president has been clear what his position is.”
The raid on Cohen’s offices resulted from a referral by Mueller to other Justice Department officials, which indicated the reason for the search is not directly related to Russian influence on the election, The New York Times reported Monday. Prosecutors in the US attorney’s office in New York are examining payments made to two women who said they had affairs with Trump, the Times reported Tuesday.
On Capitol Hill, most Republican senators sought to ignore the FBI’s raid on Cohen and continued to rebuff calls for legislation that would protect the special counsel from firing. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell dodged questions about Mueller’s fate at a news conference.
“I’m not going to answer the hypothetical. . . . I don’t think he’s going to be removed,” McConnell said. “I think he’ll be allowed to finish his job.”
But when asked if he’d been assured by the White House, he didn’t answer.
In hallway interviews throughout the day, Republican senators largely followed suit: either outright ignoring questions from reporters regarding Cohen’s legal troubles or repeating Trump’s anti-Mueller talking points. That included Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, who said he was disappointed that Mueller’s team included people who had donated money to Democrats.
There were exceptions, with some Republicans warning the president to resist interfering in the investigation and advising that he leave the special counsel in place.
“It would be suicide for the president to fire him,” said Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, speaking on CNN. “The less the president says about this whole thing, the better off he will be. And I think Mueller is a person of stature and respected and I respect him.”
Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, offered a similar sentiment, arguing that Mueller shouldn’t be touched.
“He has that prerogative, but so far he’s declined to do so, and I think it’s in his best interest if he does not,” said Ernst.
Legislation to protect the special counsel has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, but has not advanced. The Senate sponsor, Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina, called on his party to allow a hearing on the bill.
“I think the president’s frustrated — I may be if I were in the same position,” Tillis said. “But I do think it’s a bill that’s worthy of a mark-up in Judiciary and sending it to the floor.”
Trump raised questions about the fate of the special prosecutor Monday night when he spoke with reporters and cast the FBI’s raid as an illegal act.
The president said the FBI “broke into” Cohen’s office, which is a mischaracterization because the agents had a warrant. He repeated his frequent refrain that the special counsel’s investigation is a “witch hunt.” He called the FBI’s actions “an attack on our country” and “an attack on what we stand for.”
And he revealed that he’s listening to the kinds of conversations highlighted on Fox News. “Many people have said, ‘You should fire him,’ ” he added, referring to Mueller.
Some outside observers worry that by openly attacking the legal process, Trump is having an impact far greater than blowing off steam: They fear he’s eroding the rule of law.
“It transforms a very normal legal action into something which is meant to sound like gang warfare,” said Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University and author of “The Road to Unfreedom,” a book that tracks the rise of dictators.
“The rule of law in democracy can only function when we listen to facts, and we’re open to facts, and we’re willing to change our minds,” said Snyder. “The way authoritarianism wins is if you tell people what they want to hear.”
He said the growing conversation about firing Mueller and other top Justice Department officials is a way of making the case that the US legal system should apply differently to those who are close to Trump.
“We, as a country, are in a meaningful contest between authoritarianism and the rule of law,” Snyder said. “Trump wants us to think we’re in a world of war, of all against all. And he represents the good guys.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com.