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Legal Or Not, Trump's Attempt To Fire Mueller Falls Into Pattern Of Intention To Interfere


We're going to start the program by considering the week's developments in the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 elections and whether the Trump campaign colluded in some way. The week began with President Trump announcing, in a seemingly impromptu discussion with a group of reporters, that he would talk to special counsel Robert Mueller under oath. The week ended with a New York Times report that President Trump had ordered Mueller fired but backed down after his White House counsel threatened to quit. Now President Trump since denies that account, but still, it's been reported by several news organizations.

And this is the point at which we think it would be useful to step back and talk less about what happened and more about what it all means or could mean. So for this, we called someone who is very familiar with White House investigations. Richard Ben-Veniste was the head of prosecution on the Watergate task force, leading the investigation that ultimately led to Richard Nixon's resignation. He also served on the 9/11 Commission. And he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Richard Ben-Veniste, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: So can we just walk through some of the basics at this point? President Trump does have the legal authority to remove special counsel Robert Mueller. So is a request to fire him, per se, a violation of the law, and if it's not, what's the significance of that?

BEN-VENISTE: It's of a piece, Michel, with other things that have indicated an intention to interfere with the investigation conducted by the special counsel.

MARTIN: If this is part of a fact pattern that suggests an intention to interfere with the investigation, even if the president ultimately didn't do it or didn't interfere, is that actionable on its face?

BEN-VENISTE: I don't believe it's actionable on its face, but it is combined, I think, in the mind of a prosecutor, with other things such as the removal of Comey, the demand for loyalty that we have heard about that is totally inconsistent with what the role of an attorney general is and what the role of the director of the FBI is. And so this is a total misreading by Trump in his first year of how government works and what the role of investigators are. The real question is, why would he want to interfere with a legitimate investigation?

MARTIN: But there seems to be quite a lot of disagreement, even among constitutional scholars, among legal experts, about what this all means and what this could lead to. Because some have been arguing, for example, one of the news organizations rounded up like a dozen legal scholars and they disagreed about whether the president could even be charged. So what could this potentially all lead to? And when people say this could be a constitutional crisis, what are they saying?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, fundamentally, Americans don't cotton to the idea of firing the person who's investigating you. That's like, you know, deciding in a sandlot ball game that the pitcher on the other side has to go. That's not the way we do business in the United States. And the Constitution has a separation of powers that's important. And the president is not an absolute ruler.

MARTIN: But if there's disagreement about whether the president can even be criminally charged for any of this - and you're saying Americans don't cut cotton to this - then it seems to me that what you're really saying is this is a political dilemma and it becomes a matter of public pressure to say that this does not comport with the way we want our government run.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, impeachment is itself the constitutional-mandated way in which a president can be removed from office is a political process. In my view, there needs to be an unequivocal declaration by important leaders on the Republican side that Mr. Mueller must be allowed to finish his inquiry. And they need something like a doomsday resolution. If you fire Mueller, then we will put forward a resolution of impeachment. So the analogy to the Saturday Night Massacre is apt.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that before we let you go. That's the final thing I was going to ask you. You wrote in June in The Atlantic about what you called the uncanny parallels between the Watergate scandal and what's happening now. As briefly as you can, since you wrote a whole piece about it, what are those parallels for people who may not remember that history as keenly as you do?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think the bottom line, Michel, is that Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox because he did not want the investigation to proceed. And so here the question is, as Americans asked in the aftermath of Watergate, what was Nixon hiding? What was it that impelled him to take such drastic action? Well, we know that he was hiding a lot. So the question is again put to the nation, why does not Mr. Trump simply leave it alone and let Mr. Mueller conclude his investigation? Now whether he will in fact, as he says, provide sworn testimony before Mr. Mueller's grand jury - I'm skeptical about that. I've been in this town quite a long time, and I have a high threshold for surprise. It would surprise me if Mr. Trump appeared before a grand jury and gave testimony under oath.

MARTIN: That's Richard Ben-Veniste. He's a partner at Mayer Brown. He was one of the lead Watergate prosecutors. He also served on the 9/11 Commission, and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Richard Ben-Veniste, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you, again, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.