Politics

Republicans Shrug Off Trump’s Mueller Rage

Senators say they’re confident the president won’t fire Robert Mueller, even if they can’t say why.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks after the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on March 20 in Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks after the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on March 20 in Washington.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

After the feds raided the office and hotel room of President Trump’s longtime personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, on Monday afternoon, the president responded with a noticeable public escalation in his rage toward Robert Mueller’s investigation. Although the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York’s office carried out the raid, Mueller reportedly referred the case. That was enough for Trump to entertain a question about why he doesn’t just fire Mueller.

“Well … we’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters. “And many people have said, ‘You should fire him.’ ” He transitioned from there to a recollection of his firing of former FBI Director James Comey last year. “I turned out to do the right thing,” he said. He then issued some criticism of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who signed off on Cohen’s raid and oversees the Mueller investigation. It was almost as if he was talking himself into it.

This prompted the fourth or fifth occasion over the past year that Capitol Hill reporters have surveyed senators about whether they worry Trump might fire Mueller and whether Congress should pass legislation protecting the special counsel. With few exceptions, the responses from Republican senators were “No” and “No,” respectively. At least on the surface, Trump’s most eye-popping words yet haven’t moved the needle.

South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds acknowledged that these were Trump’s “most intense” comments on the matter. But should Congress pass legislation?

“No,” Rounds said. “I think we need to allow the president to make that decision on his own, but I think he understands—he doesn’t need to be told it’s a bad idea. He understands it’s a bad idea.”

Senators were either indicating that they had private information about how the president knows the consequences and wouldn’t do it, or they were just pretending to indicate that they had such information.

“He’s just not going to do it,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told reporters. But how could he be so confident? “I’m quite sure he won’t do it.”

“Unless there’s something else really bad that happens,” he volunteered. Hatch was also against taking up any legislation to protect the special counsel, because, again, he didn’t think Trump would fire Mueller.

The most noticeable shift of the day was North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, the co-author of one of two bills introduced to protect Mueller. Despite introducing the legislation alongside Delaware Sen. Chris Coons last year, Tillis had seemed to back off from pushing for its enactment. Even in an out-of-nowhere joint statement that he and Coons introduced over recess calling on Trump to “allow the Special Counsel to complete his work without impediment,” the senators mentioned their bill but didn’t call on Congress to pass it. On Tuesday, though, Tillis told reporters that he’s urging Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley to move such legislation through committee so it can be sent to the floor.

Tillis has few Republican allies. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who’s retiring at the end of the year, told reporters that he would be on board if the Judiciary Committee wants to move it. He didn’t exactly seem to be pushing, though. And Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another retiring senator and frequent critic of the president, said he had concerns that legislation protecting the special counsel might not pass constitutional muster.

Georgia Sen. David Perdue, meanwhile, had moved in the opposite direction. When asked whether further action needed to be taken to protect Mueller, Perdue seemed surprised.

“To protect Mueller?” he said. “I think it’s about time we get to the end of [the] investigation. This looks like an investigation that’s spiraling out of control.” Perdue’s position might be an outlier within the Senate Republican caucus, but it could be gathering favor within the White House.

Republicans’ appetite to pass legislation that would truly irritate a president of their own party—who, for some reason, really wants to retain that removal power!—just isn’t there. Instead, they just hope that Trump doesn’t do it and express confidence that they can’t quite substantiate.

“I haven’t seen clear indication yet that we need to pass something to keep [Mueller] from being removed, because I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. When asked a follow-up about what gives him that confidence, McConnell said that he wouldn’t “answer a hypothetical”—huh?—“because I don’t think he’s going to be removed.”

Senate Democrats, of course, are deeply concerned that Mueller will be canned and want to pass that legislation immediately. But they have their own awkward politics on the issue. Despite warning Trump that firing Mueller—or Rosenstein, for that matter—would mark the apocalypse, or at least a “constitutional crisis,” they can’t bring themselves to say that the requisite response would be impeachment. That’s because Democrats in Congress, as a general rule, can’t bring themselves to say the word impeachment.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said he wouldn’t discuss remedies for the firing while noting that such an action was “a red line that can’t be crossed.” And what are the consequences for crossing a red line that can’t be crossed? Who’s to say? It would be the “beginning of the end of the Trump presidency,” Warner said, quoting a line that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has been using. Not 10 minutes later, when I asked Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine if firing Mueller was an impeachable offense, Kaine too mentioned that it would be the beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency.

I asked Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer at his weekly press conference if he thought firing Mueller, or Rosenstein, would be an impeachable offense. He didn’t seem to love the question. “Look,” he said, “we hope we can avoid it. And we hope that Congress will pass legislation to make sure it doesn’t happen. That’s as far as we’re going to go right now.”

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