Special counsel Robert Mueller arrives at the U.S. Capitol for closed meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2017 to discuss the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
“Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in July 2017. Any effort?
The news broken by the New York Times, and confirmed by the Washington Post and NBC, is that President Donald Trump did not just make an effort—Mr. Trump reached the point of ordering the White House Counsel to get the Justice Department to fire Bob Mueller in June 2017. The President apparently backed off when the White House Counsel said he would resign if Mueller were fired.
The reason that Sen. Graham and others drew the line at firing Mueller, around that very same time, is that such action alone would constitute a grave abuse of power. Indeed. And the current reports of how exactly Trump’s decision to fire Mueller transpired provide more evidence that points, on the whole, toward a stronger case for obstruction of justice. But there is also some nuance here to be sorted through.
Here are three lessons I derived from the reported events inside the White House.
First, these events put the lie to the idea that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of Comey’s misconduct, for example, in handling Hillary Clinton’s emails or in his leadership of the Bureau. The reporting now clearly indicates President Trump simply wanted both men fired because of their dogged commitment to following through with the investigation and rooting out crime. According to the Washington Post, “the president spoke with a number of friends and advisers who convinced him that Mueller would dig through his private finances and look beyond questions of collusion with Russians.” While one might think it was already obvious why President Trump fired Comey, a question is whether it is obvious beyond a reasonable doubt or so obvious that Republican members of Congress could not try to explain it away. We now have two similar and astonishing actions by the President to thwart the Russia investigation by trying to cut off the head of the probe. Simply put, Trump’s ordering the firing of Mueller adds significantly to the criminal case for obstruction of justice and to any impeachment case for obstruction and abuse of power.
As to the three reasons the president provided for Mueller having a conflict of interest, we can interrogate each of them separately—I recommend Renato Mariottii’s tweet thread for that purpose—but the news reports themselves explain that was not the true motivation for the president’s concerns about Mueller. What’s more, the White House Counsel reportedly “disagreed with the president’s case.”
Second, caution is advised in how to interpret White House Counsel Don McGahn’s reasons for saying he would resign if Mueller were fired. It is not clear from the reporting whether McGahn objected because he considered the act would be unlawful (or unethical) or because of the harmful political effects on the White House for going down that road (and the damage to McGahn’s own professional and personal reputation for being involved). I suppose the White House Counsel could have had multiple reasons. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. McGahn disagreed with the president’s case and told senior White House officials that firing Mr. Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Mr. Trump’s presidency.” It is notable that it was the White House top lawyer who said he would resign. Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon also both reportedly strongly opposed the president’s decision, but the news reports do not say that either the Chief of Staff or the White House Chief Strategist threatened to leave.
Third, given the prospect of enormous negative fallout for the presidency if Mueller had been fired — the episode is support for either one of two theories:
Theory A: Trump calculated that the risk of damage to his presidency was less than the risk of letting Mueller continue his investigation (a “something-to-hide” theory);
Theory B: Trump’s cost-benefit calculation is so askew and his decision-making so impulsive that he’d make decisions that could implode his own White House (a madman theory)
The first explanation would fairly directly bolster the case of obstruction. The second does too in a way. The madman theory raises the question of what so deeply worried the president about Mueller to lead to an order to fire the special counsel—especially over the advice of the White House Counsel, the Chief of Staff, and White House Chief Strategist.
The fact that the attempted firing of Mueller provides significant evidence of obstruction of justice has implications across a range of issues in the Russia investigation. Most squarely it builds the case in the criminal context, which is being investigated by the special counsel. It also builds the case for any action by Congress—whether in the form of censure or impeachment and whether in the current Congress or the one after the 2018 elections. These events may also give rise to other problems for White House officials. Mueller has reportedly been asking White House officials about questions that relate very much to the president’s state of mind and attitudes toward the Russia investigation. So, did any White House officials who have been interviewed by the FBI (or by Congress) withhold information or make statements about the events in June 2017 that would now be proven false? If so, they would have exposed themselves to criminal liability, and would now have every reason to cooperate even more fully with the special counsel’s office.