President Donald Trump won the White House by defying conventional wisdom and following his instincts. His success and support make it unlikely he'll change his approach or behavior. But history shows the folly of Trump’s overt attempts to bully special prosecutor Robert Mueller, the ex-FBI director appointed to oversee a probe into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Recently, Trump gave an extraordinary interview to The New York Times in which he said he would not have appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russian investigation. Trump also warned Mueller to keep his probe tightly focused. Then the Times posted another stunning story that said Trump’s team is scouring the backgrounds of investigators hired by Mueller, “looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation” – or to build a case for Mueller’s firing.
But the terms of Mueller’s appointment specify that he can look at other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation.” Bloomberg reported Mueller’s team is already examining a range of transactions involving Trump businesses and associates, including a Florida real estate deal in which a Russian oligarch paid $95 million for a mansion Trump bought for $41 million and efforts by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to “secure financing for some of his family’s real-estate properties.” Mueller doesn’t seem to be backing away because of Trump’s pressure.
Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor appointed in 1994 to look into a suspicious Arkansas land deal involving President Bill Clinton, had similar license to go where evidence took him. Starr ended up persuading the House of Representatives to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to his attempts to hide evidence of his sexual relationship with a White House aide; Clinton was not convicted by a divided Senate. Given that Trump’s indifference to ethical standards recently prompted the resignation of the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Mueller could end up expanding his probe into areas that have not even come to light yet.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will order Mueller to be fired. If that happened, it would have parallels with events involving another president who faced impeachment: Richard Nixon. In 1973, special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused Nixon’s order to stop trying to obtain tapes of Oval Office meetings or other presidential documents related to the Watergate scandal. When Nixon wanted Cox gone, both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned after declining to fire him, but Solicitor General Robert Bork complied with Nixon’s order.
What became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” quickly eroded Nixon’s support among elected Republicans. Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, the GOP’s 1964 presidential nominee, said Nixon’s credibility “has reached an all-time low from which he may not be able to recover.” Nixon didn’t recover. Less than a year later, he resigned rather than be forced out of office.
If Trump fires Mueller, he will also have reached an all-time low from which he may not be able to recover. That should make him reflect. Will it?