Watergate saga should tell Trump firing Mueller won't help him

Trump Russia Probe
Special counsel Robert Mueller (left) was replaced as FBI director in 2013 by James Comey, who was fired by President Trump.

By now anyone who values his sanity has stopped trying to predict what President Trump will do or say. So as farfetched as the idea seems, a report Monday that the president might try to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could not be dismissed out of hand.

“I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel,” Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said during an interview on PBS’s Newshour. Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, said he based his comment on what he heard a member of Trump’s legal team say over the weekend, and not any statement by the president.

But this country has seen a precedent. It was called the “Saturday night massacre” when on Oct. 20, 1973 President Richard Nixon fired Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus after they refused to fire Archibald Cox, who had been appointed special prosecutor in the Watergate cover-up scandal.

Solicitor General Robert H. Bork became acting attorney general and carried out Nixon’s order to fire Cox. The president subsequently abolished the office of the special prosecutor and turned over to the Justice Department all further responsibility for investigating Watergate. That didn’t turn out too well for Nixon, who only succeeded in delaying the inevitable and resigned in disgrace 10 months later.

One would think that history would be enough to persuade Trump that firing Mueller is a road he doesn’t want to travel. But Ruddy, a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., suggested during his PBS interview that maybe Trump isn’t a student of history. He said it was “pretty clear” by recent comments by one of Trump’s lawyers that firing Mueller had at least been discussed.

Legal experts say the president still has authority to fire Mueller, who was appointed to investigate Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election, even though the special-counsel statute that existed when the Watergate cover-up was being investigated was changed after the long investigation of the Clinton presidency.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee denied any collusion with the Russians. But Sessions has recused himself from the investigation, which means if Trump wants Mueller fired, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would have to do it.

Rosenstein said during the Senate hearings that he would only fire Mueller “for good cause and I am required to put that cause in writing. … If there were good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.”

Those words don’t mean Mueller won’t be dismissed, it just makes it’s less likely. Trump seems to enjoy doing the unlikely, but in this case, he would be wise not to risk the public’s reaction to his gall.