Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Opinion writer

Their timing could not be better. A day after reports surfaced that President Trump wanted to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in December (in addition to an earlier effort in June), five veteran Republicans have formed a new organization, Republicans for the Rule of Law, seeking to restrain the president from doing exactly that. Bill Kristol (editor at large for the Weekly Standard), Mona Charen (a veteran of the Ronald Reagan administration who recently made a splash at the Conservative Political Action Conference), Linda Chavez (another Reagan administration veteran), Sarah Longwell (a longtime GOP consultant and chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans) and Andy Zwick (executive director of the Foundation for Constitutional Government) launched the group. The following ad touting Mueller’s background and GOP ties aired on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe“:

The group also released a Web ad quoting President Ronald Reagan extolling the rule of law.

The group is concerned about protecting Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, too. Trump reportedly was ruminating about firing him, a move that would be just as alarming as firing Mueller. Rosenstein’s replacement, at the behest of Trump, might seek to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation or force it to wrap up prematurely. Longwell tells me, “Any attempt to interfere in the special counsel’s investigation by firing a key official —whether Mueller, Rosenstein, or [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions — would be extremely damaging and not only to the rule of law, but also to the Republican Party and to Trump’s presidency.” She adds, “Such a move would further imperil vulnerable Republicans in November and completely derail the Republican policy agenda for the rest of 2018.”

Constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe voices alarm at the prospect that Rosenstein might be on the chopping block. “Trump firing Rosenstein would be part of an ongoing impeachable pattern of presidential obstruction of justice,” he says. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions firing Rosenstein might violate the terms of his recusal but not if there was a genuine justification unrelated to Mueller’s investigation.” Tribe also warns of a scenario that would be more serious than violating his recusal: “Sessions firing Rosenstein as part of an understanding with Trump that giving Mueller a minder more loyal to Trump than Rosenstein is the only way for Sessions to remain AG.” That, Tribe says, “would involve a conspiracy between Trump and Sessions to obstruct justice and could involve a bribe by Trump of Sessions.”

It is always possible that Trump would seek to fire Rosenstein directly, as he likely is empowered to do under the Constitution as head of the executive branch, or try to get someone else at the Justice Department to carry out the task. This really stirs up memories of President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. Chavez says: “We are facing the most serious constitutional crisis since Watergate. The president’s actions have the potential to set this nation on a course from which it may never recover. Until Donald Trump, no president put himself above the law, but with his bellicose threats and potential firings, Trump may undo 200 years of history.”

However he attempts to do it, the move would mark a tipping point for Trump. Former White House ethics counsel Norman Eisen says, “If Trump fires Rosenstein with corrupt intent to block Mueller’s investigation, that will be of a piece with the [former FBI director James B. ] Comey firing and constitute still more evidence of obstruction.” He further warns: “The president will be taking a case against him that is still undetermined (which is why Mueller said he is just a subject, not a target) and making it much more definitive. It will be the beginning of Trump’s end.”

The resulting furor from firing any of the three — Mueller, Sessions or Rosenstein — may well trigger a slew of Justice Department resignations, an uproar in Congress and mass protests — as progressive groups have been threatening. The group Public Citizen tweeted out an alert on Monday:

Meanwhile, the FBI’s raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office has turned up the heat on the president’s inner circle still further. The Post reports:

Federal prosecutors investigating President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael D. Cohen, are seeking records related to two women who received payments in 2016 after alleging affairs with Trump years before — adult-film star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal — according to two people familiar with the matter.

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, one of those people said.

Investigators are also seeking all communications about Daniels and McDougal among Cohen, David Pecker — a friend of Trump and the chief executive of American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer — and Dylan Howard, the chief content officer for American Media and a reporter there.

These issues ostensibly have nothing to do with the Russia investigation (which is why Mueller reportedly passed the matter off to a New York prosecutor). The payoffs and any slush fund set up to clean up Trump’s messy affairs with women may implicate only Cohen in potential charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, campaign finance violations, etc. But it is certainly possible that Cohen, contrary to Trump’s denial on Air Force One, was operating with the full knowledge and direction of his client. It would be cosmic karma if the president who was elected after bragging on tape about sexual assault and who had more than a dozen women accusers claiming non-consensual sexual harassment or assault was finally undone by his own womanizing. (It also suggests that shutting down the Russia investigation would do nothing to halt the Cohen/payoff issues now percolating.)

We are now closer to a constitutional crisis than at any point in the Trump presidency. More unhinged, exposed and isolated than ever, Trump may very well decide to fire Justice Department officials to protect his hide, thereby spelling the end of his presidency. Kristol says, “Here’s what I’d say to the president: There’s no cause to fire anyone at Justice. Spend your time weakening America’s enemies abroad, not undermining the rule of law at home.” Now would be a good time for Republicans in Congress and around the country to make clear that firing Mueller, Sessions or Rosenstein would be politically fatal.

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