Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

This morning brings reason for (very) cautious optimism: A bipartisan group of senators is introducing a bill that could prevent President Trump from pulling off a Saturday Night Massacre-style move against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, something that Trump appears to be seriously considering.

Right now, at this very moment, it is all but certain that a majority of senators support this bill. It is also all but certain that a majority of senators on the Judiciary Committee also support it. This means it could theoretically gain some momentum — if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Judiciary Committee Chair Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) are willing to allow that to happen.

The new bill — which is being introduced by Democratic Sens. Christopher A. Coons (Del.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), and GOP Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — is called the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act. It represents a merged version of two bills that had been introduced last summer to protect the investigation. The new one would provide the Special Counsel with 10 days to seek judicial review of any decision to remove him, a process that would determine whether the firing was for good cause. If not, the removal would be voided.

Trump has openly confirmed he’s seriously considering trying to remove Mueller. Meanwhile, CNN reports that he is considering accomplishing this by firing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and replacing him with someone who would hamstring Mueller’s probe. (Such a person could also fire Mueller.) The new bill could presumably give Mueller a way to contest such a firing as well. (If it somehow passed, Trump could veto it, but he should be challenged to do that.)

With Graham and Tillis supporting this bill, that means 51 senators (presuming all 49 Democrats would back it) would vote for passage. What’s more, because Graham and Tillis are both on the Judiciary Committee, that presumably means a majority of that committee also supports it — meaning this bill could go forward, if GOP leaders allow it.

In that context, it is the timing of this bill that creates reasons for (very) cautious optimism. According to an aide to a Democratic senator on the committee, the feeling is that Tillis would have been unlikely to move forward with it unless he had received a signal that it might result in action. That’s because Tillis had sponsored one of the previous Mueller-protection bills, which didn’t go anywhere, and Tillis might not have any appetite for getting humiliated by a second failure.

Which means a great deal turns on what Grassley says today. Grassley claims it would be “suicide” for Trump to try to remove Mueller. Grassley now has an opportunity to prove he is actually prepared to act against this eventuality. Tillis’s willingness to move forward could signal that Grassley is willing as well, Democratic aides believe.

We’ll see if that comes to pass. But if the bill were to get voted out of the Judiciary Committee, it would pose a very stark test for McConnell. The Senate majority leader claimed on Tuesday, laughably, that he doesn’t see any “clear indication” of the need for legislation, because he doesn’t think any effort to remove Mueller is “going to happen.” Would McConnell prevent a vote on a bill to forestall that possibility if it showed signs of momentum?

An absurd but revealing argument

The absurdity of McConnell’s argument points to something that has always been puzzling about this debate. If Republicans were to act now, it would make it less likely that Trump would either try to remove Mueller or succeed at it. They themselves say they don’t want that outcome to come to pass. Yet they won’t act to make that less likely on the grounds that it probably isn’t going to happen.

But we already know that Trump has repeatedly tried to remove Mueller in the past. We know he is seriously considering taking various steps that might accomplish this. And, crucially, we know he has been testing what he can get away with. Note this key revelation from The Post today:

Within the president’s orbit, people described Trump as furious and “lit up” by the recent developments, and floating a trial balloon to test the boundaries of trying to halt Mueller’s burgeoning probe.

“His anger is unabated,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House, who added that the mood there is “extremely grim.”

If Trump is “testing the boundaries,” then why would he not conclude that there are no boundaries as long as Republicans refuse to say what the consequences of crossing this line will be? If Trump does take this plunge, their predicament could get more difficult, not less. The pressure on them to take even more drastic steps against Trump will increase. Yet at the same time, Trump’s base may rally more vigorously behind the president against Mueller, making acting even harder. Why not act now with a more modest step in order to make a much more explosive clash later less likely?

It is always possible, of course, that Republicans don’t actually intend to act if Trump does go full authoritarian. The fate of this new Mueller-protection effort will send a clear signal as to their true intentions.

* COHEN’S PAYMENTS TO WOMEN ARE SCRUTINIZED: The Post reports that prosecutors who raided Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office want records relating to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal:

The interest in Daniels and McDougal indicates that federal investigators are trying to determine whether there was a broader pattern or strategy among Trump’s associates to buy the silence of women whose accounts could have harmed his electoral chances and whether any crimes were committed in doing so … Daniels is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Experts tell The Post that when Trump denied knowing about the Daniels payment, he blew his chance to have this matter in particular protected by attorney-client privilege. Oops!

* RYAN WON’T RUN FOR REELECTION: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has decided to retire:

The party has seen a large number of retirements, and Ryan’s exit is certain to sap morale as Republicans seek to contain a surge in enthusiasm from Democrats, whose fortunes have been buoyed by the unpopularity of President Trump.

This says an awful lot about Republicans’ view of their own chances of holding the House.

* BUSINESS GROUPS GEAR UP TO FIGHT TRUMP’S TARIFFS: Bloomberg News reports that an unusual coalition of business groups is coming together to fight Trump’s trade war:

Retail, agriculture, technology, manufacturing and other industries say the tariffs on $150 billion in Chinese goods are counterproductive to the goal of holding Beijing accountable for intellectual property theft and other trade practices. … [They] are warning that China’s retaliation with levies on products will ultimately be passed along to shoppers as price increases. That would hurt the U.S. economy, cost jobs and erase benefits from the tax overhaul last year, the groups said.

The question, though, is: If a trade war does start hurting the economy, who will be able to punch through Trump’s bubble and get him to acknowledge it’s happening?

* HOW WE MIGHT AVOID A TRADE WAR: Axios reports that those inside the White House who oppose a trade war with China see a way out:

Some expect the rhetoric will get even hotter in the short-term, but Xi [Jinping] has started to build an exit ramp for Trump to claim victory on a few things (Eg lower tariffs on American cars) and move on. The free-traders hope Xi will be smart and give Trump enough “wins” to take a and public relations lap and break the cycle of escalating tariffs.

We all have to hope China understands that the question of whether Trump can say he “won” is far more important than any damage a trade war might do in the interim.

* REPUBLICANS ARE NOW WORRIED ABOUT LOSING THE SENATE: National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar reports on the rising alarm among Senate GOP strategists:

Leading GOP Senate strategists now worry that Democrats won’t necessarily need a perfect storm to net the two seats necessary to win back a majority — just enough lackluster GOP campaigns and a little bad luck along the way. … Even if Republicans are able to pick off one of the Democrats’ red-state senators … Democrats still have a realistic pathway to the majority if they are able to win seats in Nevada and Arizona while scoring an upset somewhere else. Polls show the Tennessee Senate race highly competitive.

The Democrats’ win in Alabama is now looming very large: It has created a plausible, if difficult, pathway to a Dem Senate via Nevada, Arizona and possibly Tennessee.

* AND TRUMP SAYS HIS OBSTRUCTION IS ‘FIGHTING BACK’: Here’s an interesting admission from Trump on Twitter this morning:

I (we) are doing things that nobody thought possible, despite the never ending and corrupt Russia Investigation, which takes tremendous time and focus. No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back), so now they do the Unthinkable, and RAID a lawyers office for information! BAD!

So Trump actions that are being scrutinized as obstruction as justice were, in fact, intended as a response to the Russia probe. Clear now?

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Just in time — a new Republican group seeks to protect Mueller

Kathleen Parker: We’ve seen this movie before. It ended with impeachment.

Jennifer Rubin: Trump melts down after Cohen raid — and only hurts himself