Reading the tea leaves.
No one really knows what Donald Trump will do next — not even Donald Trump. But with Robert Mueller racking up indictments and 2017 drawing to a close, there are several indications that Trump is considering sacking the special counsel.
Firing Mueller would not be easy. Under current regulations, only Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, could fire him. Even Rosenstein could only fire him “for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies.”
In one sense, firing a special counsel that has already secured two guilty pleas from Trump campaign advisers and serious charges against two others is unthinkable. But there are numerous signs that Trump is at least considering it.
Trump invited two congressmen who are working to end the Mueller investigation for a ride on Air Force One
When Trump staged a pseudo-campaign rally for Roy Moore in the Florida panhandle on Friday, he invited two special guest alongs for the ride: Congressmen Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis.
Gaetz represents the district where Trump scheduled his speech. But Gaetz has also “introduced a resolution [November 3rd] calling for the resignation of Robert Mueller, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from his position as Special Counsel.” In a speech introducing the resolution, Gaetz said that America is “at risk of a coup” and Mueller must resign or be fired.
DeSantis, who represents a different area of Florida, introduced legislation in August that would severely curtail Mueller’s investigation and then completely cut off funding, essentially ending the probe, after six months.
Trump is escalating his rhetoric
At his Florida rally, Trump also escalated his rhetoric about America’s “rigged” system. Although he did not name Mueller, it was hard to miss the subtext.
“This is a rigged system. This is a sick system from the inside. And, you know, there is no country like our country but we have a lot of sickness in some of our institutions,” Trump said.
“Look, it’s being proven we have a rigged system,” Trump added. “Doesn’t happen so easy. But this system, there will be a lot of changes.”
Trump has used the term “rigged system” to describe Mueller’s investigation.
Notably, Trump is repeating his claim that the system is “rigged” but also is adding that it is “sick.” Under this formulation, firing Mueller could be the “cure.”
Trump allies are savaging Mueller
When Mueller was first appointed, Newt Gingrich, now a professional pro-Trump pundit, praised him effusively.
Now Gingrich is harshly critical of Mueller, describing him on Fox News last Wednesday as “corrupt.” Mirroring Trump’s language, Gingrich described the “system” investigating Trump as “sick.”
Sean Hannity, another key Trump ally, has sharply escalated his anti-Mueller rhetoric. CNN’s Brian Stelter summarized a recent episode.
Hannity began the hour by slamming “Robert Mueller’s partisan, extremely biased, hyper-partisan attack team,” calling the accomplished lawyers “an utter disgrace.”
He invoked the U.S. Constitution and said “they now pose a direct threat to you, the American people, and our American republic.” Repeating something he has said dozens of times before, Hannity said, “this entire witch-hunt needs to be shut down — and shut down immediately.”
Then Hannity brought in news anchor turned “legal analyst” Gregg Jarrett, who appears on the program almost every night to savage Mueller and company.
“I think we now know that the Mueller investigation is illegitimate and corrupt,” Jarrett said.
Mueller crossed Trump’s “red line”
Trump told the New York Times in July that if Mueller began investigating his finances, that would cross a “red line.”
SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?
HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?
TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes.
This week the Wall Street Journal reported that Deutsche Bank was subpoenaed by Mueller for records “concerning people or entities affiliated with President Donald Trump.”
The Mueller investigation is getting very close to Trump’s son-in-law
Former Trump adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with the Mueller investigation. Flynn was under scrutiny for his efforts to undermine U.S. foreign policy relating to Russia and other countries before Trump took office.
It’s widely speculated that Mueller would not agree to strike a deal with Flynn unless he was offering damaging information on someone higher up the food chain. Jared Kushner would likely qualify.
It’s one thing if Paul Manafort or George Papadopoulos go to jail. It’s now possible that Trump views ending the Mueller investigation as the only avenue that could save his family.
Roy Moore is teaching Trump the wrong lesson about Congress
Ultimately, the real check on Trump is not Rod Rosenstein or Department of Justice regulations but Congress, which has the power to impeach and remove Trump from office. The question is whether removing Mueller crosses a line for Republicans in Congress.
For many Republicans in Congress, the allegations of child sex abuse against Roy Moore crossed the line. Mitch McConnell and many others called on Moore to end his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
But after Trump threw his support behind Moore, McConnell and others backed down. Trump is essentially learning that he can bend Congress to his will. This makes firing Mueller a much more palatable option for Trump.