The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. According to the Post, Mueller is interviewing senior intelligence officials in “a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice.”
Most importantly, it removes the cover from any attempt Trump might make to fire the Special Counsel, and greatly increases Trump’s legal jeopardy if he does.
Trump has been sending up trial balloons on a Mueller firing for days. Earlier this week, a guy named Christopher Ruddy made the television rounds to say that Trump is “considering perhaps terminating” Mueller. Ruddy said that he believed that Trump was “weighing that option.”
Normally, nobody would pay much attention to what Ruddy, the CEO of a conservative website called Newsmax, has to say. But Ruddy is known to be a close personal friend of Trump’s, and he had visited the White House on the day he made his statement. So it was widely reported, and seemed to carry some weight.
Ruddy wasn’t the only Trump insider hinting at the possibility that Trump might fire Mueller. One of Trump’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, appeared Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Sekulow called Trump a “unitary executive,” suggesting that he has unfettered authority to fire anybody within the Executive Branch of the government. He went on to say that Trump was going to seek legal advice on firing Mueller.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders promptly launched a similar trial balloon, telling reporters that Trump has the right to fire Mueller.
What Ruddy, Sekulow and Sanders were suggesting makes sense, in a Trumpian sort of way. Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony that Trump was not under investigation made the timing right to consider firing Mueller.
It appeared that all Comey meant to say was that no formal criminal investigation had been opened specifically targeting Trump, not that Trump’s conduct wasn’t under scrutiny as part of a larger investigation into Russian interference with the election. But Comey was sufficiently imprecise about it to allow Trump to claim he had been vindicated.
Comey’s testimony that Trump wasn’t “under investigation” was viewed by a lot of people as potential cover for Trump to get rid of the Special Counsel. It could partially immunize Trump from the claim that firing Mueller was itself an act of obstructing justice.
How could anybody argue that Trump was trying to obstruct an investigation into whether he had committed a crime, the argument goes, if the FBI Director had publicly made it clear that that there is no such investigation?
Yes, Trump would still be strongly criticized if he fired Mueller. But Comey’s confirmation that Trump himself wasn’t under investigation changed the risk-reward calculation of a Mueller firing.
Trump had weathered one self-inflicted storm after another. Why not this one?
But now, the risk-reward ratio has changed dramatically. Now that it is known that the Special Counsel is investigating the specific issue of whether Trump obstructed justice, firing Mueller would be something entirely different.
Firing Mueller would no longer be merely a slightly risky gamble. It would be a potentially catastrophic act of desperation.
It could end Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s support used to be described as a mile wide and an inch deep. As he has lurched from one crazy, impulsive act to another, it has become narrower and shallower. He has nothing left but his base, and even that is shrinking, and becoming less enthusiastic.
His support is now more like a meter wide and a millimeter deep.
Practically from the start, people have been asking “what will it take for the Congressional Republicans to finally turn against Trump?” The answer, of course, is that they will turn on Trump only when they come to believe that sticking with Trump will hurt them politically more than it will help them.
So far, they haven’t made that calculation. Although Trump’s base has shrunk slightly, it has mostly stayed with him. So Congressional Republicans have played it safe to protect themselves from the ire of Trump’s supporters.
But that could change. Firing the person leading a criminal investigation against him could be the final straw.
And when the Congressional Republicans turn on Trump, his presidency will be over.
That’s why the Washington Post story, unlike many of the other recent revelations, really is a big deal.
Philip Rotner is a writer, attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilipRotner.