For months, senior White House officials and prominent congressional Republicans publicly assured the American people that the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election had nothing to fear.
As it turned out, those Republicans suffered from a severe lack of imagination.
On Thursday night, the New York Times broke the news that in June, President Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, only rescinding the directive when McGahn threatened to resign rather than follow Trump’s command. McGahn reportedly told senior White House officials that Mueller’s firing would be disastrous for the five-month-old administration, and wagered that the president would not fire Mueller himself.
Trump lawyer Ty Cobb, the White House liaison with Mueller’s investigative team, told the New York Times that “we decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.”
The abortive firing came amidst growing concerns within the White House that Mueller, tasked with exploring potential links between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin, was investigating allegations of obstruction of justice in the Trump White House—and concerns that the president’s reaction to that news could spark a constitutional crisis.
“We are all advising him not to [get rid of] Mueller,” one Trump aide told The Daily Beast in June. “It would be an absolute nuclear explosion if he did.”
Rumors that Trump was considering blowing up the investigation led to a flurry of legislative efforts to shield Mueller from the president’s wrath—and to assurances from senior Republicans that such an event was practically inconceivable.
Firing Mueller would be “so far out of bounds,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told The Daily Beast, that he couldn’t “imagine anybody’s even discussing that at the White House.”
Even as Trump publicly stated that any investigation of his family’s finances by Mueller’s team would be a “red line,” numerous Republicans dismissed the possibility that the president would so much as consider firing him.
In August, two months after Trump reportedly ordered McGahn to fire Mueller, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) dismissed legislation intended to insulate Mueller from White House interference as unnecessary, telling The Daily Beast that Mueller’s firing was “just a hypothetical that, frankly, I don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), whose contempt for the president is ill-concealed, assured The Daily Beast in October that “there’s no indication that he’s going to go in and fire or pardon at this point.”
After Chris Ruddy, CEO of right-wing Newsmax Media and Trump confidant, told CNN in June that Trump was likely considering firing Mueller, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) called the notion “such an out of bounds thought... I can’t imagine anybody at the White House is seriously discussing that.”
Even Republicans who helped author the legislation intended to protect Mueller began to waver after Trump, reportedly under Cobb’s guidance, began to hold back from public criticism of the investigation, including tweets declaring Mueller’s investigation amounted to “the single greatest Witch Hunt in American history.”
“I don’t feel an urgent need to pass that law until you show me a reason that Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who introduced such a bill, told The Daily Beast in October. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind at the White House would think about replacing Mr. Mueller unless there was a very good reason.”
Bills intended to extend an umbrella of congressional protection over Mueller stalled late in 2017 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly stated that “there’s been no indication that the president or the White House are not cooperating with the special counsel.”
Capitol Hill Republicans had good reason to believe that Mueller was safe: senior White House officials, as well as the president himself, repeatedly declared that firing Mueller was never under consideration.
“The president has not even discussed that,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told George Stephanopoulos in August. “The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller. We are cooperating—he has not even discussed—he has not discussed firing Bob Mueller.”
As high-profile Republicans dismissed the possibility that Mueller was ever in jeopardy, the message apparently sank in—at least, with one person.
“I haven’t given it any thought. Well, I’ve been reading about it from you people. You say, ‘Oh, I’m going to dismiss him.’ No, I’m not dismissing anybody,” Trump told the New York Times in August, two months after he’d reportedly ordered Mueller fired.
“I mean, I want them to get on with the task.”