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If Trump Sought To Fire Mueller But Didn't, Does That Mean Mueller's Safe Now?

President Trump sought to fire the special counsel but acquiesced when the White House's top lawyer didn't go along. That doesn't mean Mueller is out of danger.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Trump sought to fire the special counsel but acquiesced when the White House's top lawyer didn't go along. That doesn't mean Mueller is out of danger.

Updated at 10:31 a.m. ET

So President Trump sought to fire Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller last year — but the White House's top lawyer wouldn't go along. Does that mean Mueller is safe?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The news about Trump's desire to get rid of Mueller only weeks after the president dismissed FBI Director James Comey — but his unwillingness to press the matter — could mean Trump and his advisers feel it's too dangerous to attempt the same play twice.

Plus they've spent the months since advertising how closely they're cooperating with investigators both for the special counsel and for Congress.

All the same, if the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, The New York Times story on Thursday night makes clear that the notion of firing Mueller is at least one Trump and his aides have evaluated in detail.

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They went as far as coming up with reasons why Mueller was too conflicted to lead the investigation into whether the Trump camp conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election. Reasons apparently included that Mueller had once disputed fees at a Trump golf club; that he once worked at a law firm that represents Trump's son-in-law; and that he had interviewed — with Trump — to replace Comey at the FBI.

The Times story also undercut all the statements by Trump and his aides that they had never even given a thought about trying to fire Mueller. So that horse is out of the barn. The response in Washington and the country to the Times report gives the administration a rare chance to assess what people would think if Trump tried again.

None of the legal or procedural avenues that were open to Trump before to get rid of Mueller are closed. If White House counsel Don McGahn wouldn't go along, Trump could replace him.

Trump could try to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions with someone who is not recused from the Russia matter and could lean on Mueller and his team. Trump could replace Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, for whom Mueller now works, with someone who would get rid of the special counsel.

Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee last month that he monitors Mueller's work closely and has been satisfied with it. The law requires "cause" for Rosenstein to fire Mueller and so far there is none, the deputy attorney general said.

But Trump and his aides have come up with causes in the past to take action against people they wanted to fire. The president gave a number of reasons over a series of weeks for why he had fired Comey, starting with Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, calling him a "nut job" and a "showboat" and saying the Russia investigation was all made up.

In the case of Mueller, Republicans have been arguing for months that he is "biased," conflicted or otherwise unfit to continue his investigation. They point to the anti-Trump text messages of a senior FBI investigator whom Mueller removed from the Russia unit.

That's not all, however. By now, Trump and the White House have a whole carryout menu's worth of choices to try to use against Mueller, from charges that he failed to investigate a 2010 uranium sale to charges he protected family members of Osama bin Laden to charges that he and his staff are infested with Democrats simply hounding Trump out of partisan animus.

Mueller's defenders have been calling all along for Congress to enact special legislation that protects him, but neither House Speaker Paul Ryan nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has seemed enthusiastic about going along with it. Plus Trump would have to sign any such bill.

Congress has boxed the president in before, however. Both chambers, controlled by Trump's own allies, passed tougher sanctions on Russia with vetoproof majorities to punish Moscow for its attack on the 2016 election — and took away Trump's discretion to relax them.

If the Times' report proves alarming to too many Americans, lawmakers could try to pass a bill protecting the special counsel that Trump might have no choice but to sign.

Or short of that, Ryan and McConnell could make clear how they would respond if Trump tried again.

In terms of the Trump administration's public position, the report has so far yielded no change — the president's attorneys emphasized this week how many documents they've given special counsel and congressional investigators and how many witnesses they've made available.

Not only that, but Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he was looking forward to giving an interview to Mueller under oath.

The president did not acknowledge the Times report as accurate.

"Fake news," he told reporters on his trip to Switzerland. "Fake news."

That was only the latest dismissal. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway have maintained all along that Mueller is in no danger. For now.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.