And the White House has said in the past 24 hours that pardons are not “on the table” and that it has no “intention” of firing Mueller; in other words, it is using language that doesn't totally rule it out.
But on Tuesday morning, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow did do something to downplay the possibility — in a potentially big way.
“The president has not indicated to me or to anyone else that I work with that he's had any intent on terminating Robert S. Mueller III,” Sekulow told ABC News, echoing others' talking points. Then he added: “You could only terminate a special counsel for cause, and we just don't see any basis for cause.”
That second part is key. “For cause” means Mueller would have to actually have done something in his investigation to warrant being fired. Sekulow admits there isn't anything right now.
And that's significant. Trump has hinted before that Mueller going after his and his family's finances might be a red line in the whole Russia investigation. Here's what he told the New York Times in July:
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.. . .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.
The indictments of Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, are pretty much all about their personal finances and an alleged scheme that took place before the 2016 Trump campaign even began. This is largely seen as an effort to get them to cooperate with investigators by hitting them on something outside the scope of actual Russian meddling in the election. (Russia is involved in their indictments, but only tangentially as the country that supported Manafort's candidate in Ukraine.)
Sekulow has now said that this is fair game. He has essentially given his blessing to Mueller expanding his investigation into personal finances separate from the campaign.
From there, it becomes more difficult to see how Trump would fire Mueller for cause. How could Trump believe that looking at Manafort's finances is a-okay but looking at son-in-law Jared Kushner's or his own is not? He and his legal team could certainly try to make that argument, but Sekulow will have made it much more difficult by granting that the scrutiny of finances is within the acceptable scope of the investigation — contrary to what Trump seemed to tell the Times in July.
We'll see what happens going forward, but this was a major concession when it comes to potentially trying to fire Mueller down the line.