Last summer, the president of the United States, who is the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, tried to fire the federal appointee overseeing an investigation into whether the president or his advisers had broken the law by, among other things, obstructing justice.
When Donald Trump angled for Robert Mueller’s head last year, according to a report from the New York Times, he reasoned that he was within his rights because the special counsel had too many conflicts to impartially run the Justice Department’s probe of possible wrongdoing involving Russia and Trump’s campaign.
Trump sorted Mueller’s conflicts into three neat and ridiculous baskets: money (Trump claimed Mueller gave up his membership at a Trump golf course over a dispute about fees, a tale Mueller’s spokesman has said wasn’t true); family (Mueller had worked at a firm that had represented Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner); and work (Mueller had interviewed for the FBI’s top job a day before he was appointed as special counsel).
None of those issues compromised Mueller in any meaningful way. Trump must have known this, of course. But the president, a survivor to his core, had to find some novel way of explaining why he was trying to escape the clutches of an obstruction of justice investigation by obstructing justice. Trump’s White House counsel, Donald McGahn, saw this overreach for exactly what it was and threatened to quit unless Trump backed down. And so Trump backed down, according to the Times.
Let’s not pretend, however, that the president will remain subdued for very long. All of this transpired last June. Since then, Mueller has indicted or secured guilty pleas from four former Trump insiders for a variety of crimes. He’s conducting interviews with senior White House officials, and a meeting with the president apparently is on the horizon. As the temperature of his investigation rises, expect the president to act out in increasingly volatile ways, and to stretch the boundaries of the law to counter Mueller’s probe.
What might that look like?
Trump has the power to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official overseeing Mueller’s probe, if Rosenstein doesn’t obey a request to fire Mueller. Trump could then tear through the Justice Department’s senior ranks, firing people until he finds one who would comply with his demands.
Although there’s some debate among legal scholars about how much latitude the president would have for such a purge, Trump’s previous maneuvering in this investigation suggests he believes he can do almost whatever he wants. That might explain why the Times report is surfacing now: Perhaps White House officials, perhaps even McGahn himself, are worried that the president is set again on toppling Mueller and they want to stop it (having the president safely tucked away in Switzerland and unable to counter-program probably helps).
McGahn also has much on the line himself. Last January he met with Sally Yates, then acting attorney general, after she told him that Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the White House about his contacts with a Russian official. McGahn invited Yates back the next day and asked her why the Justice Department cared if White House officials were lying to one another. Yates said that it would possibly give the Russians leverage to blackmail Flynn. As it turned out, the White House knew for weeks that Flynn hadn’t been truthful about his communications with Russia -- and neither McGahn nor Trump apparently felt concerned enough to force him out.
If McGahn is now in Mueller’s crosshairs, he might have decided that the simplest solution is to cooperate with the probe and turn over information in exchange for gentler treatment. In that scenario, McGahn becomes the source, directly or indirectly, of all kinds of interesting stuff for investigators and the media to ponder.
As the White House gets rattled further, Trump will test how deeply Congress believes in and respects the rule of law. The U.S. legal system, whatever its imperfections, is a pillar of American life and liberty. Republicans and Democrats in Congress should remind themselves of that and prepare for the very real possibility that the president will try to fire the special counsel again -- especially if Mueller’s probe ensnares any of the Trumps, including the paterfamilias.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”