If you’re too young to remember, in 1973 there was a famous bumper sticker saying, “Impeach The Cox-shucker Now!” That was a witty allusion to the Saturday Night Massacre, wherein President Richard Nixon gave orders to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who refused to fire Cox. Cox was finally fired by Acting Attorney General Robert Bork, which set off a public firestorm. The Saturday Night Massacre marked the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. Congressional support eroded, the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings and the Supreme Court ordered the release of White House tapes capturing the president and his aides plotting the cover-up. Nearly 10 months after that October night, a beaten Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.
Now, the wheel of history has come full circle and today White House aides are cringing before what they view as special prosecutor Robert Mueller “crossing the red line,” which will surely, they fear, bring on the “apocalyptic shitstorm” when Donald Trump fires Mueller, which ostensibly Trump will do if Mueller calls his bluff and orders investigation into Trump’s finances, or his family’s finances, which Trump has told Mueller is expressly verboten. That is “the red line” that Mueller is about to cross, aides fear. The Daily Beast:
Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into Trump and his family’s personal financial matters, CNN reported on Thursday. He has also escalated the investigation with subpoenas, a new federal grand jury, and additional staff that together indicates the probe is intensifying.
The official alluded to Trump’s interview with the New York Times last month, in which he agreed that Mueller would cross a “red line” by expanding his investigation from alleged Russian election meddling into the Trump family’s finances. Jay Sekulow, a member of the president’s outside legal team, reiterated that position to CNN on Thursday. “Any inquiry from the special counsel that goes beyond the mandate specified in the appointment we would object to,” he said.
Mueller and his team are now firmly on the wrong side of that “red line,” and Trump staffers are worried at the prospect that he could follow through on his threat—or at the very least dig the White House deeper into a legal and public relations hole with ill-considered tweets or public statements that have become his hallmark.
“Just keep him off the Twitter and on the teleprompter,” the White House official said. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t cleared to discuss these sensitive matters.
Trump could order Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Robert Mueller, and Rosenstein has already indicated that he would be disinclined to follow such an order. It’s not carved in stone at this time exactly what Rosenstein would do, but it is noteworthy that two bipartisan Senate bills are already making their way through that chamber that would remove the president’s authority to oust the special counsel. Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and a sponsor of one those bills, raised the possibility that Trump might try fire Mueller while the Senate is on its August recess. Coons told reporters on Thursday that Senators could return to Washington to block him from firing Mueller over the recess, if need be. So that avenue of relief may be blocked to Donald Trump. Adding more barriers to Trump’s firing route is the fact that, according to Trump aides who wish to remain anonymous, Chief of Staff John Kelly opposes getting rid of Mueller.
“I can’t imagine he’d sit idly and watch that happen,” one of the officials said, though neither specified what action he might take if Trump went that route.
For months, White House advisers have been urging the president—who has no qualms venting about Mueller and other top law-enforcement officials publicly—not to order the firing of Mueller, as aides generally recognize the “apocalyptic shitstorm,” as one White House adviser put it, that would result.
“[Trump] has gone up to the line of and flirted with the idea of firing [officials], including Sessions,” the Trump adviser said. “But we’re not at code red at all yet.”
Multiple White House sources emphasized that, though some of this Russia-related news from Thursday isn’t entirely new, several major stories breaking in the span of one afternoon ups the chances of Trump-Russia investigation news playing wall-to-wall on the news—thus greatly increasingly the chances the president will notice the coverage, become distracted by it, grow infuriated by it, and lash out.
“Lash out” is what has West Wingers holding their breath and Trump’s lawyers praying that he stays off of twitter. William Ruckelshaus, who was Assistant Attorney General and one of the people who resigned rather than fire special prosecutor Cox in 1973, offered this advice to Donald Trump. New York Times:
If Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, is left alone, he will conduct a thoughtful and fair investigation. He is universally and justifiably admired and should be supported in his work.
If the president fires him, as he is reportedly contemplating doing, the result might very well be the same as what President Nixon faced when he forced Elliot Richardson and me to resign for refusing to obey his order to fire Cox.
Mr. President, don’t worry whether you have the power to pardon yourself. But do consider the wisdom of firing the man charged by your own deputy attorney general with investigating Russian intervention into your election.
This is a game that Donald Trump can’t win because it’s not about bullying. It’s about being an adult. Trump doesn’t know how to do that, so his losing is guaranteed. How he deals with losing is of course open to speculation. During Watergate the question was often put, “Are we a government of laws or a government of men?” Once again, we’re about to find out.