This has several ramifications for the Russia investigation.
First, Republican pressure to allow special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to do his job does seem to have an effect on Trump. After several days of tumult and anxiety about Trump possibly firing Mueller, Trump tweeted on Thursday: “I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!). I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my Special Counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process.”
It is no coincidence that his retreat by tweet comes as Republicans may finally move forward with a bill to offer some protections for Mueller. The bipartisan Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act — designed to give the special prosecutor a time to challenge his dismissal, reaffirm the Department of Justice regulation saying that he can be fired only for cause and providing for the investigation’s materials to be preserved — may get a vote.
One co-sponsor, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), writes for The Post that “if the president actually removes the special counsel without good cause, it would likely result in swift, bipartisan backlash and shake the country’s faith in the integrity of our legal system. Talking heads and pundits on television encouraging the president to make such a drastic and counterproductive move most certainly do not have his best interests at heart.” In other words, Congress has to protect Trump from himself. If he is certain he’d be clobbered by his own party for firing Mueller, that blowback would very likely make a difference in his cost-benefit analysis next time he thinks about firing Mueller.
Second, it is hard to think of a constitutional means to prevent Trump from firing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. However, a bipartisan resolution stating that the attempt to install a new deputy AG (or AG, for that matter) with the intent to curtail or end the Mueller investigation would be seen as an improper attempt to interfere with an ongoing investigation would be useful. Congress — and Republicans specifically — could signal that Rosenstein’s firing would compel them to act. As my colleague Phillip Bump explains, “replacing Rosenstein with someone who would handcuff Mueller (so to speak) might be the most effective way to stem the investigation. Less outcry, less heavy-handedness — and fewer indictments.”
The Lawfare blog explains: “Firing Rosenstein would be an act intended to limit and ultimately enable the shutdown of the Russia investigation and other inquiries into the president, his family and his inner circle of business associates. This is a corrupt purpose, plain and simple.”
Congress should make clear it would respond to Rosenstein’s firing without good cause exactly the same way it would to Mueller’s firing. Activists planning peaceful mass protests in the event Mueller is fired should be ready to hit the pavement if Trump fires Mueller or Rosenstein.
Third, Trump brags about his willingness to confront Mueller, but at some level I strongly suspect he knows he is no match for the former Marine and former FBI director. Trump has been desperately seeking new and better counsel apparently because he understands that his legal team is at best second-rate. He knows the risk of perjury and the risk he’ll say something “wrong.” It does not surprise me in the least that Trump’s team now is using the raid on Michael Cohen’s office, hotel and home as a reason to try ducking an interview. (Reuters reports, “Trump’s anger over the warrants to search the home and office of lawyer Michael Cohen has made the interview far less likely, one of the people said on Thursday.”)
At this point, Trump has no idea what information Mueller possesses, and therefore no idea how or where in his interview he might be contradicted. (The Post reports there may even be audio tapes from Cohen’s calls that may or may not be between Cohen and Trump.) If Mueller thinks an interview is critical and seeks to subpoena Trump, prepare for a long court battle as Trump’s team tries every trick in the book to keep Mueller at bay.
Trump’s bark has always been worse than his bite. However, as he recognizes that he is cornered, the impulse to lash out will be greater. The rising probability that he’ll act rashly, firing Mueller or Rosenstein, is precisely why Congress and the American people need to make clear: Rosenstein’s termination would doom his presidency.