FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee...
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Would Trump fire the special counsel investigating the Russia scandal?

Updated

The Rachel Maddow Show, 6/12/17, 9:32 PM ET

Could Trump really fire Special Counsel Mueller?

Matt Miller, former Department of Justice spokesman, talks with Rachel Maddow about the technical rules of the special counsel in the Trump-Russia investigation.
Donald Trump already fired an FBI director overseeing the investigation into the Russia scandal. Would the president raise the stakes and fire former FBI Director Bob Mueller, the special counsel who’s now leading the probe?

As Rachel noted on the show last night, one of Trump’s confidants said publicly that the move is a possibility.

The friend, Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, who was at the White House on Monday, said on PBS’s “NewsHour” that Mr. Trump was “considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel.”

“I think he’s weighing that option,” Mr. Ruddy said.

The comment raised more than a few eyebrows – Ruddy has been privy to Trump’s thinking on many issues for several years – and raised the prospect of another Watergate-like development in the Russia affair.

Taking a step back, there are three broad questions to consider: can Trump fire the special counsel, would Trump fire the special counsel, and what would the consequences be if Trump does fire the special counsel.

On the first point, the answer is an unambiguous yes. Mueller is overseeing the ongoing investigation, but he’s not entirely independent, and if the president wanted to get rid of him, Trump could order the Justice Department’s leadership to fire him. If DOJ officials refused and/or resigned, the president could simply work his way down the department’s hierarchy until he found someone willing to follow his orders.

What’s more, because the special counsel exists as a result of executive-branch regulations – as opposed to federal law – Trump could also repeal those regulations and effectively strip Mueller of his authority to act.

Which leads us to whether Trump would take such a dramatic step. As a rule, looking back over the last several years, we’ve confronted the question multiple times, in multiple contexts: “He wouldn’t go that far, would he?” In more instances than not, Trump has managed to surprise skeptics with his radicalism.

The president has, after all, already fired the FBI director and dozens of federal prosecutors, including the one with jurisdiction over Trump Tower. Trump is also convinced the investigation is standing in the way of his presidency, creating a powerful incentive to, use his purported words, “relieve the pressure” of the Russia scandal by trying to make it go away.

Trump aides have reportedly been telling him to steer clear of such a dramatic escalation, but allies such as Newt Gingrich have begun talking up the idea of firing Mueller, which will likely help persuade the president that the move has merit.

And what happens if Trump wakes up one morning and impulsively decides to send Mueller packing? The fallout would be considerable, but unpredictable. Up until now, congressional Republicans have effectively played the role of White House co-conspirators, allowing Trump to get away with anything he wants. Watching the president fire the special counsel investigating the Russia scandal would test the GOP’s tolerance, but it may be wishful thinking to believe Trump’s Republican allies have a sense of limits.

After some GOP leaders tried last week to defend Trump’s apparent obstruction of justice, pushing the “clueless, not criminal” defense, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, “With Trump likely to descend further, to unforeseen depths, we have only begun to grasp the stakes of this enabling exercise, and have no idea where the bottom lies, in the minds of Republicans, or indeed, if there is any bottom at all.”

To be sure, GOP lawmakers have already sent out not-so-subtle signals to the White House, making clear their belief that the president should not even consider firing Mueller. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) added this morning, “I think [the president] should let Bob Mueller do his job.”

If Trump ignores this advice, impeachment pressure will reach new levels of intensity. Congressional Republicans would be wise to consider now how they’d react to such circumstances.

Donald Trump and Scandals

Would Trump fire the special counsel investigating the Russia scandal?

Updated