By Albert R. Hunt
During the election campaign, Donald Trump declared he could “shoot somebody” in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. As president, he’s calculating that he can ignore the rule of law and that there are enough quisling Republicans to let him get away with it.
He is, without question, scheming how to get rid of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Trump’s connections to Russia. The betting in Washington is that he’s willing to ignore Congress and Justice Department rules, and do this by executive order if necessary.
Then, short of impeachment, which is not in the cards now, what’s the best remedy?
Congress could enact a law reinstating the independent-counsel statute on a one-time-only basis. Congress lacks the executive power to name the counsel but could pass a “sense of the Congress” provision encouraging Chief Justice John Roberts to name a panel to expeditiously appoint Mueller to continue his probe.
This would have to be done with the approval of Republican congressional leaders and, if successful, gain enough rank-and-file GOP support to override a certain presidential veto. That would require the assent of at least 19 of the 52 Republican senators and almost 100 House members.
Here is why Trump believes that Congress won’t do this and that he can ignore any firestorm of protests.
He thinks House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he views as weak, will voice disapproval if Mueller is removed, but then say, “Let’s move on to the business of the nation and tax reform.”
Trump regards Sen. Lindsey Graham as a showboat who will go on a Sunday talk show and decry a “lawless presidency,” then turn his attention to the need for stronger action on Syria.
As for the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Charles Grassley, who has a reputation as a curmudgeonly but straight-shooting conservative, Trump sees him as holding hearings on a constitutional crisis — and then pivoting to focus on an overview of antitrust laws.
Let’s hope Trump is wrong. If he takes the radical step of using an executive order to remove Mueller, there is a compelling case for an independent counsel, one who does not report to the Justice Department. Currently Mueller reports to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Restoring the independent-counsel statute would relieve the special prosecutor from the risk of political interference.
That law expired in 1999, after bipartisan complaints about open-ended and unaccountable prosecutors. It was replaced by the special-counsel process under the Justice Department.
There were good reasons for the shift. Independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, starting in 1986, took 6½ years to complete his inquiry into the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra scandal, and Kenneth Starr spent more than four years investigating Bill Clinton.
Most incredible, independent counsel David Barrett took more than 10 years to investigate Clinton’s housing secretary, Henry Cisneros, who publicly acknowledged having an affair when he was mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and paying his former mistress. The FBI said he lied about the amount he paid her.
This time around, Congress could set a time limit of two years on a Mueller investigation. The case is complicated, but Mueller has a crack team of investigators, and it’s better to reach any conclusions before the 2020 election year.
Yes, this will put pressure on Republicans. But one consideration that will be off the table is loyalty. In Trump’s trashing of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, his first and most important Senate supporter during the campaign, he has shown that loyalty is a one-way street for him. On Capitol Hill, many, probably most, Republicans believe Trump is erratic, unprincipled and will always put self ahead of party.
But they also fear his hard-core base. This is not a unique hazard. During Watergate, when freshman Rep. William Cohen turned against President Richard Nixon, he got death threats. (The Maine congressman’s intern then was now-Sen. Susan Collins, an independent Republican and key member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is examining the Trump-Russian link.)
But Trump would go further than anyone to fan the rage of his supporters, even if this leads to blood in the streets. An illustration of the political deplorables the president embraces is Arizona Republican Kelli Ward, who recently met with White House officials who encouraged her in a primary challenge against conservative Sen. Jeff Flake, who refused to endorse Trump. While others were lauding Arizona’s other senator, John McCain, for his courage in battling brain cancer, Ward, an osteopathic doctor, called on him to resign so Arizona’s governor could appoint her to the seat.
When the president flouts the law, as Trump will do if he fires Mueller, that should transcend partisanship or fear of a GOP primary challenge. Some allies of Paul Ryan are warning him that Trump is likely to come after him next. Even at the risk of his speakership, they would urge him to put principle over party. Lindsey Graham surely knows he faces the same risks, if he’s going to be the next generation’s Republican maverick in the McCain tradition.
If Trump acts on his threats — after all, he’s gotten away with everything before — it’s legacy time for these Republicans.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Minnesota Lawyer, the Bloomberg View editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.