Two Republican senators said Tuesday that they would support impeachment if President Donald Trump fires special counsel Robert Mueller while he investigates potential Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Yet, despite the dramatic ending of Trump's presidency being mooted by Republicans for the first time, there appears little prospect anytime soon of the threat gaining widespread acceptance within the president's party.
Trump ramped up his anti-Mueller rhetoric this week, prompting fears that the president was considering ousting the special counsel. The president tweeted Saturday that “[T]he Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign” and called the investigation a “WITCH HUNT!”
Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, both of whom have leveled criticism against the president before, indicated that firing Mueller would be impeachable conduct. While neither senator represents the heart of the Republican establishment, their words send a message to the president that his party would not unanimously support him.
"Probably so, if he did it without cause, yeah," Graham told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday morning in response to a question about whether firing Mueller would constitute an impeachable offense.
“I think what the president will have done is stopped an investigation in[to] whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, what effect the Russians had on the 2016 campaign. I can’t see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose,” Graham added. “To stop investigation without cause, I think, would be a constitutional crisis.”
Later in the day, Flake compared a possible firing to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” when the president fired independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
“He left before impeachment came, but that was the remedy then and that would be the remedy now,” he said. Flake later tweeted a pleading message to the president. “We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel. Don't create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing,” he wrote. “Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don't go there.”
Still, Republican leaders are hesitant to openly criticize Trump over his handling of the probe, especially before the 2018 midterm elections.
“The president is, as you know—you’ve seen his numbers among the Republican base—it’s very strong. It’s more than strong, it’s tribal in nature,” Republican Senator Bob Corker told The Washington Examiner Tuesday. “People who tell me, who are out on trail, say, look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not.”
While Republican rank-and-file would prefer that the president allow Mueller to finish his investigation, “they also recognize gamesmanship of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans by proposing impeachment,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign.
“Republicans are going to give Trump the leeway to try and discredit and turn public opinion against Mueller because they know that if Democrats win big in midterms, they’ll file impeachment papers.” Midterm elections tend to be base affairs, said O’Connell, “the folks who try to run from the president of either party wind up the ones that get slashed at the ballot.”
Polls suggest that there is little value to be had with the party's base if Republicans suggest providing the ultimate censure to Trump if he dismisses Mueller. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Republican sentiment on Mueller had hit a new low.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both reiterated their support for Mueller’s investigation Tuesday but, notably, did not discuss any repercussions for a potential firing.
“I’ve received assurances his firing is not even under consideration,” Ryan said during a Tuesday morning news conference. McConnell said that “Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish the job” and said he thought he was “an excellent appointment.”
Trump, meanwhile, took to Twitter Wednesday morning to quote an anti-Mueller opinion piece in The Hill by Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School.
“Special Council is told to find crimes, whether a crime exists or not. I was opposed to the selection of Mueller to be Special Council. I am still opposed to it. I think President Trump was right when he said there never should have been a Special Council appointed because there was no probable cause for believing that there was any crime, collusion or otherwise, or obstruction of justice!” So stated by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz,” he wrote. While Trump misquoted the op-ed, he did accurately summarize the piece.
For Republicans who continue to fear the repercussions of getting on the wrong side of the president's still powerful base, the hope is that Trump's bluster regarding Mueller remains just that.
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