By Paul Waldman
Remarkably, we are almost a year into Donald Trump's term as president of the United States and we haven't yet had a full-blown constitutional crisis. But it may be on its way.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is circling the Oval Office, and the closer he gets, the more agitated President Trump and his defenders become. In response, they've begun an all-out assault on Mueller, one that could well result in Trump firing him. It's more than obvious that Trump wants to do so; the only question is how long the relatively sane people around him who appreciate the consequences of such a move can hold him back.
They surely know that Trump firing Mueller would not only be a political disaster for him but would plunge the government into its most serious crisis in decades, with a president moving to shut down an investigation into his own wrongdoing. In order to do it, Trump would have to create his own version of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre, in which he moved to fire Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate scandal.
Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, the only one with the authority to fire Mueller is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has made clear he understands that he is only allowed to fire Mueller for cause, not simply because the president doesn't like being investigated. So Trump would probably have to fire Rosenstein, then order the next person in line to fire Mueller, and if she didn't, he could keep firing people on down the line (there's a good explanation of all that here).
It would be an incredibly dramatic crisis, one that would almost certainly involve many of Trump's closest aides begging him to stop before he created ample justification for impeachment. Until now they've succeeded in restraining him. How long can they keep it up?
To answer that question, you have to consider that not only does Trump see himself as the victim of an unfair probe that is only meant to delegitimize his election victory, he is also being constantly pressured to go ahead and fire Mueller. Trump is highly attuned to conservative media, particularly Fox News (The New York Times reports that he watches between four and eight hours of cable news every day), where he's getting hammered day in and day out with the message that Mueller is so corrupt and biased against him that he absolutely has to go.
That this is ludicrously at odds with reality is of no consequence. Mueller is a Republican who was appointed to head the FBI by George W. Bush, and is plainly proceeding methodically and carefully. He has obtained indictments on two Trump aides (Paul Manafort and Rick Gates), and has gotten two others (George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn) to plead guilty to relatively minor charges in exchange for their cooperation. But when it was revealed that an FBI agent working for Mueller sent text messages disparaging Trump to his girlfriend—and was removed from the investigation lest any questions be raised about partisan motivations—many of Trump's supporters positively exploded in a furious assault on not just Mueller but the FBI and the entire Justice Department.
Look for instance at this unhinged rant from Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, in which she says that the FBI and DOJ "need to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired but who need to be taken out in handcuffs. There have been times in our history when corruption and lawlessness were so pervasive, that examples had to be made. This is one of those times."
She's hardly alone: Tune in to Fox at any random moment of the day and it's a good bet you'll hear someone railing against Mueller and/or the FBI. "I think we now know that the Mueller investigation is illegitimate and corrupt," said the network's Greg Jarrett. "Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt," Newt Gingrich told Laura Ingraham on her Fox show. And no one has called for Mueller's firing more angrily and repeatedly than Sean Hannity, who refers to the investigators as "Robert Mueller's partisan extremely biased hyper-partisan attack team."
These Fox personalities are not peripheral figures in our current political moment, and can't be judged by the size of their audiences alone. Jeanine Pirro goes to the White House to meet with the president. Trump not only watches Hannity just about every night, he regularly calls the host after his show ends to debrief and get political advice. So on a daily basis, the president is being told, through the medium from which he gets most of his information, that Mueller needs to be fired and the entire Justice Department is conspiring against him.
And the closer Mueller gets to Trump, particularly as he starts looking at the multitudinous financial connections Trump has to sketchy Russian characters, the more urgent the pleading from Fox will become, the angrier Trump will get, and the more eager he'll be to throw off the shackles of propriety and fire Mueller.
What happens then? When Trump moves to obstruct justice by firing a special counsel already investigating him for obstruction of justice, will members of his party in Congress find the courage to tell him that he can't?
A few may. But I'd wager that most Republicans will convince themselves that Mueller really is out of control and has to be shut down. They'll be on TV insisting that Trump was right to do what he did, and he'll be watching.
Of course, we might avert this crisis. Trump might decide to wait for Mueller's findings and accept whatever consequences they bring. He might come to believe that his obligation to the rule of law and the strength of core American institutions supersedes his own personal interests. He might do the right thing.
But is that what you expect from Donald Trump?