Somebody is basically daring Trump to try to fire Mueller.
Just a day before the Bloomberg report, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump said this is precisely the thing that for him would cross a “red line” with Mueller. The Times reporters repeatedly asked what would constitute Mueller going too far, and eventually Trump agreed that probing his business and his family’s financial dealings would be a “violation.”
It has previously been reported that the Russia investigation has focused on the business dealings of Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, but this appears to be the first indication that Trump’s own finances are under scrutiny.
In the Times interview, Trump didn’t quite say he would try to fire Mueller for such a thing, but he sure hinted at it. Here’s the transcript:
MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?MAGGIE HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years. [CROSSTALK]SCHMIDT: But if he was outside that lane, would that mean he’d have to go?[crosstalk]HABERMAN: Would you consider —TRUMP: No, I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company. And actually, when I do my filings, peoples say, “Man.” People have no idea how successful this is. It’s a great company. But I don’t even think about the company anymore.…HABERMAN: Would you fire Mueller if he went outside of certain parameters of what his charge is? [crosstalk]SCHMIDT: What would you do?[crosstalk]TRUMP: I can’t, I can’t answer that question, because I don’t think it’s going to happen.
And then it happened.
It’s not clear that Trump can fire Mueller even if he wanted to, though. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and is overseeing the probe, has said that only he can fire Mueller and that he wouldn’t do it simply at Trump’s request, without “good cause.”
If Rosenstein were to resist Trump’s demand and Trump fired him, too, it would fall to Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand to oversee the probe and make that decision. If she resisted and Trump fired her, it would fall to Dana J. Boente, the acting assistant attorney general for national security.
The Fix’s Philip Bump breaks down that whole process here.
It’s also not clear that Mueller’s probe is restricted in any way, legally speaking. Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white-collar lawyer who represented officials in the Clinton White House, said there’s pretty much no limit.
“Mueller’s designation as special counsel is very broad, and he will be looking at both direct and indirect issues related to Russia and the campaign,” Jacobovitz said. “If you recall, Spiro Agnew was convicted of tax evasion, and the Clinton independent counsel evolved from Whitewater to an affair. So independent counsels have a lot of discretion in terms of what they investigate.”
But just because it would be difficult doesn’t mean Trump wouldn’t attempt it. He has shown before that he’s willing to fire people who run afoul of him (see: Comey, James B.) even as it resulted in Mueller investigating him for potential obstruction of justice. And Trump also doesn’t have much regard for the normal legal processes and the rule of law.
Firing Mueller, though, would be the equivalent of firing Comey times 10 on the controversy scale. Now the ball, it seems, is in Trump’s court.
Amber Phillips contributed to this post.