But the ones circulating on Monday evening—and the sources who were passing them on—were serious enough that on Tuesday morning, some Senate Democrats felt the need to huddle in anticipation of it actually happening, and happening soon. In fretful tones, they discussed what they would do in the immediate aftermath of Trump potentially axing the man investigating the possibility that he had colluded with Russian actors during the 2016 campaign and the DoJ official overseeing that investigation.
Spearheaded by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) office, the outlines of a game plan for the constitutional armageddon emerged. As reported by CNN, lawmakers would demand that all documents related to the Mueller probe be preserved and that Republican lawmakers immediately and publicly join them in condemning the act. They would also go on a PR offensive, with sources telling The Daily Beast that, among other things, the party would task legal luminaries to fan out to media markets across the country to echo their shock with the president’s dispatching of constitutional norms.
As of early Tuesday evening, Democratic leadership had no reason to ring this bell. But the seriousness with which they’ve begun not just considering the possibility but planning for it underscores the immense tenseness of this current political moment.
Inside the White House, that tension is simmering, too. Senior staff have long been accustomed to hearing Trump privately discuss his desire to kick Mueller and Rosenstein to the curb, while failing so far to actually follow through—a bit of temperamental musing that occurred as recently as December, The New York Times reported Tuesday. It has become so commonplace, in fact, that it’s bordered on being considered routine. “Stop asking me if [Trump is] considering firing [Rosenstein], my answer is always going to be the same,” one West Wing official told The Daily Beast earlier this week—meaning, “yes.”
But some of President Trump’s aides say there has been a conspicuous uptick this week in his ire toward the deputy attorney general.
One White House official described it as reaching a “fever pitch” after reports emerged that Rosenstein had signed off on an FBI raid of the hotel and home of Trump’s longtime consigliere, Michael Cohen, over, among other things, matters related to hush money payments. Two senior White House aides told The Daily Beast that as soon as they saw the reports surface, they assumed, and feared, that the president would see it on a feedback loop on Fox News, grow incensed by it, and lash out accordingly. Another aide said the president appeared far more personally bothered by that Cohen news than anything else on his plate this week, including the atrocity in Syria for which his administration may be compelled to take military action.
It doesn’t help Trump’s mood that some of his favorite TV hosts and informal political advisers have been publicly calling for the ouster of Rosenstein, Mueller, and the rest of “them.” On Monday, Fox Business star Lou Dobbs tore into the deputy attorney general. Fox News host and fellow Trump confidant Sean Hannity told viewers Monday evening that “this is now officially an all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States. Now, Mueller and Rosenstein have declared what is a legal war on the president.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not have much to add when pressed during the briefing if Trump had talked about nixing Sessions, Mueller, or Rosenstein in the last 24 hours. “I haven’t had any conversations with him on that,” she told reporters. She did not, however, shoot down the premise. “I can’t speak to it beyond that,” Sanders added.
She also stressed that Trump had the legal authority to fire Mueller if he wanted.
That is in sharp dispute. According to Department of Justice regulations, the special counsel may only be removed for “good cause” by the acting AG (in this case, Rosenstein, since the actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the investigation). Rosenstein is a presidential appointee and can be dismissed without cause. Should he be fired, the next to assume supervision of the special counsel’s office would be Solicitor General Noel Francisco, former Justice Department attorney Neal Katyal told The Daily Beast. (Katyal drafted the DOJ’s special counsel regulations in 1999.) If Francisco refused to fire Mueller, Trump could then theoretically fire him, until he found someone who would find the “cause” needed to fire the special counsel. (Hypothetically, Trump could also order the regulations—which are not law—to be repealed and fire Mueller himself, as Katyal has written.)
To date, there has been nothing to give credence to the idea that there is cause to fire Mueller. A Department of Justice review cleared Mueller of potential ethics issues last May and Rosenstein has testified that he has found no reason to terminate him.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from entertaining the possibility. Nor has it stopped his press secretary from asserting that the president has the legal authority to do so.
But while Democrats seem to be frightened, many Republicans continued to act on Tuesday as if it would never transpire.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fielded several questions about it during his weekly leadership press conference, each time shooting down the idea that Mueller had anything to worry about and dismissing the need to pass legislation protecting the special counsel. His colleagues echoed his calm.
“I think we’re fine,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said of the possibility that Trump may follow through on his Mueller threat before breezing through a gaggle of reporters.
—with additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich