When the media reported that President Trump had tried to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, he denied it. When the topic was first discussed last year, he and the White House denied considering it. And when the prospect came up again last month, the White House said it wasn't under consideration then either.
Things seem to have changed.
During Tuesday's White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was given an opportunity to talk about firing Mueller. But rather than play down the prospect, she answered the question and asserted that Trump could, in fact, fire Mueller if he wanted to:
Q: Does Trump believe he has the power to fire Robert Mueller as special counsel?
SANDERS: He certainly believes he has the power to do so.
The comments came after Trump left open the possibility Monday night of firing Mueller. Trump gave a noncommittal “We'll see what happens” when asked whether he might do it, but then he conspicuously began talking about how his firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey was justified. Trump was clearly angered by federal investigators' raid of his longtime personal attorney's office, and he seemed to edge closer to firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — or both.
Sanders's comments Tuesday, which also included saying Trump felt Mueller "had gone too far," make that doubly clear.
Republicans have played down the possibility, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asserting Tuesday that he didn't believe Trump would do such a thing — and thus that Congress didn't need to pass legislation to protect Mueller, as some, including Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), have urged.
Sanders's comments indicate there has been at least some consideration of this potential step — to the point where she knows that Trump believes it's within his powers. That's notable because Trump has said he didn't attempt to fire Mueller last summer, and the White House has said recently that it wasn't under consideration. It seems that now, at the very least, it has received at least a basic level of consideration.
(It’s also worth emphasizing here, though, that Sanders’s argument that Trump can fire Mueller is highly debatable -- at best. Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, has indicated he would be responsible for terminating Mueller but wouldn’t do so without cause. Experts think Trump would have to ask Rosenstein to fire Mueller and, if he wouldn’t, fire Rosenstein and possibly more Justice Department officials until he could find someone who would fire Mueller.)
It's possible Sanders was just asserting a presidential power that she wants to make clear the president views as absolute — the White House has said similar things when it comes to pardoning power — but it would have been just as easy for her to dismiss the question as a hypothetical. She didn't. Instead, she relayed a very specific viewpoint that she attributed to the president. This is something she had checked on with him.
Those who have any illusions that Trump would never try to fire Mueller again, it seems, are deluding themselves.