In early December, President Trump, furious over news reports about a new round of subpoenas from the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, told advisers in no uncertain terms that Mr. Mueller’s investigation had to be shut down.The president’s anger was fueled by reports that the subpoenas were for obtaining information about his business dealings with Deutsche Bank, according to interviews with eight White House officials, people close to the president and others familiar with the episode. To Mr. Trump, the subpoenas suggested that Mr. Mueller had expanded the investigation in a way that crossed the “red line” he had set last year in an interview with The New York Times.In the hours that followed Mr. Trump’s initial anger over the Deutsche Bank reports, his lawyers and advisers worked quickly to learn about the subpoenas, and ultimately were told by Mr. Mueller’s office that the reports were not accurate, leading the president to back down.
Despite this report, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed confidence Wednesday morning that Trump would not do the thing he has attempted to do twice. The reason? “I’ve been talking to people in the White House about it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also downplayed the need to protect Mueller via legislation on Tuesday. “I haven't seen a clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed because I don't think that's going to happen, and that remains my view,” McConnell said.
And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee would be the place to mark up such legislation, said it would be “suicide” for Trump to fire Mueller — but that he does not think it will come to that.
Trump, meanwhile, is only upping the ante. He left open the possibility of firing Mueller after the Michael Cohen raid Monday and tweeted Wednesday morning that “Mueller is most conflicted of all” — except perhaps Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, whom Trump also pretty clearly wants to fire. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, conspicuously assured us Tuesday that Trump believes he has the power to fire Mueller. Sanders's comments unmistakably reserved that option.
It's entirely possible this is all a big bluff — that the White House is trying to apply pressure to Mueller by ruminating about his termination. But it's also abundantly clear from the Times report and past reporting that there have been multiple occasions on which Trump actually, literally moved to fire Mueller. In the first case, in June, he backed off after White House counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign over it. In December, according to the Times, his lawyers clearly did what they could to allay his concerns.
There's certainly an argument to be made that the two episodes (*that we know about*) suggest aides and lawyers are able to keep Trump in check and that they will do their best to stop him from firing Mueller. That's the argument Ryan seems to be making. But Trump has never been one to defer completely to staff. And by moving to fire Mueller twice — including after being talked out of it the first time — Trump has signaled he is perfectly capable of flying off the handle and attempting something his aides have strenuously advised against. The fact that he tried a second time is extremely telling.
Anybody who claims Trump is predictable or manageable enough to stop a third episode either hasn't been paying attention or is believing what they want to believe. It's clear that Republicans want to avoid a legislative debate over a bill to protect Mueller — doing so would invite the wrath of Trump and would be a direct rebuke to their party's own president — and this is the easiest justification. But that doesn't mean it makes logical sense.
Even if Ryan and others have received assurances, they cannot have complete confidence in them. Even if Trump himself is telling aides that he would never actually follow through and that this is just posturing, you can't take that to the bank; he has changed his mind too many times on too many very important things.
If GOP leaders do not think legislation to protect Mueller is the right way to go or they would rather not take on Trump like that, they might as well just say it. But to give any assurances about what Trump will or won't do requires a very convenient brand of amnesia. Trump would like to do it, and he seems to be building the justification for it. And the next time he tries it, his aides may not be so persuasive.