Why Firing Mueller Might Not Backfire on Trump
If President Trump was willing and able to fire FBI Director James Comey, then there’s every reason to expect he will do the same to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as well as anyone else in the Justice Department chain of command who might stand in his way.
“He can’t do that!” you might be sputtering. It would be literally Nixonian. It will destroy his legislative agenda. It would be political suicide.
Many have observed that if Trump dumps Mueller, it would closely track the October, 20 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre.” On that disturbing day, President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was refused by the attorney general and deputy attorney general, forcing their resignations.
The trio of dismissals accelerated the push for impeachment, but on its own did not seal Nixon’s downfall. Nixon replaced Cox with the stubbornly independent and similarly relentless Leon Jaworski who, to the president’s dismay, successfully continued Cox’s pursuit of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes. The White House released transcripts in April, hoping to keep the audio under wraps. But the transcripts were hardly exonerating. A House Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry soon followed.
Jaworski still demanded the actual tapes, battled Nixon all the way to the Supreme Court and won. A few days later, in July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, with six Republicans joining 21 Democrats.
Even that didn’t immediately make Nixon pack it in. Two weeks later, a trio of Republicans met with Nixon privately. “There's not more than 15 senators for you,” Sen. Barry Goldwater told the president, implicitly warning him that he would be convicted by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Nixon may have seen the writing on the wall earlier, but Goldwater extinguished whatever hope he may have had left.
A firing of Mueller by Trump would not necessarily spark a similar chain of events. First, whoever follows Mueller, if anyone does, would not necessarily be as independent as Jaworski. In addition, Nixon faced a Congress controlled by the opposition party Democrats, and an ideologically diverse Republican Party. Trump is advantaged by a Republican congressional majority purified of any liberal strains.
Finally, while Trump’s job approval numbers are poor, languishing in the upper 30s or low 40s in most polls, his support among GOP voters has withstood nearly every possible political disaster. Republicans in Congress would be risking their own home base support if they ever broke ranks.
There’s another big difference between Nixon and Trump. Nixon understood the political risk he was taking, and balanced it against his foreign policy objectives. According to the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book “The Final Days,” Nixon “knew that firing Cox would invite a move to impeach.” But he believed letting Cox publicly demand the tapes in defiance of a presidential order would make him look weak in the eyes of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. As Nixon told his unimpressed attorney general, “Brezhnev wouldn’t understand if I didn’t fire Cox after all this.”
Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand or care about the political risk. He fired Jim Comey, according to White House aides, believing Democrats would applaud. Whether or not that was true, he knows by now that another self-serving firing would not juice his poll numbers—and would galvanize Democrats even more. If Trump rids himself of Mueller, it wouldn’t be because he believes the need to exude strength internationally outweighs the added risk of impeachment. It would be a brazen attempt to shut down the investigation and prevent impeachment.
The cold truth is that it might work. So far, the indications are that House Republicans would stand by Trump and not consider impeachment, and that they would be backed up by most Republican voters.
Some Democrats are trying to warn Trump of a likely congressional backlash. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, tweeted last week, “If President fired Bob Mueller, Congress would immediately re-establish independent counsel and appoint Bob Mueller. Don't waste our time.” On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein also suggested if Trump tried to “shut down the investigation [then] his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law.” But neither Schiff nor Feinstein actually speaks for congressional Republicans or Trump voters, making their threats speculative at best.
Trump may be this century’s Nixon. But no Republican today is auditioning to be Barry Goldwater. And even if one did, he or she probably wouldn’t be able to confidently tell the president he can’t win an acquittal.
The biggest political risk Trump would be taking in firing Mueller is electoral backlash. If obstruction of justice becomes the central issue of the 2018 midterms, that might motivate Democratic base voters more than Republicans, giving Democrats the House and the power to impeach.
Even that scenario can’t worry Trump too much. Many Democratic base voters are hungry for impeachment and would exert pressure on a House Democratic majority. Yet there is no chance Democrats could control two-thirds of the Senate, so they could never convict Trump without Republican help. Without any hope of bipartisan backing, some Democrats would likely forgo impeachment and a sure loss in the Senate trial.
In other words, the question of impeachment may end up dividing the left and uniting the right, unless the spirit of Barry Goldwater lurks in the hearts of more Republicans than the human eye can see.