Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed, in May, to head up an investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s election campaign team. Very soon afterward, the conversation turned to whether the president would fire the new Special Counsel, what authority he had to do so and what the consequences of such a move would be?
Two bipartisan bills aimed at limiting the president’s ability to oust Mueller have been introduced in the Senate. Such a development may signal increasing concern that Trump intends to do just that, despite assurances to the contrary.
On Thursday, Delaware Democrat Chris Coons and North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis introduced a bill that would trigger a judicial review “in the event any special counsel is fired without justification,” according to ABC News. New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina introduced their own bill that would check any move by the president to fire Mueller in the first place.
Speaking to CNN, Thom Tillis said, of his and Coons’s bill, “The president would maintain the power to remove the special counsel, but we would just want to make sure that it had merit and have that back-end judicial process.”
The Booker-Graham bill calls for a judicial review before Mueller can be effectively removed. It appears likely that a single bill could emerge from the two efforts. According to a Washington Post report, Senator Graham addressed the differences between the bills: “I think we maybe can have a meeting of the minds. I really appreciate [Coons and Tillis] doing it. I just have a different way of doing it.”
The president cannot fire a special counsel directly; that authority lies with the Attorney General. Mueller was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy AG. Therefore, to oust Mueller, President Trump would have to order AG Jeff Sessions to fire Mueller and, were he to refuse, replace him with someone who would obey the request. Alternatively, the president could – after firing Sessions – order Rosenstein to remove Mueller. Even then, a Department of Justice regulation requires that whoever fires the special counsel is required to justify the decision in writing. Essentially, a special counsel cannot be fired without just cause.
Getting rid of Mueller would be messy and would cast the president in an extremely unforgiving light, possibly causing a major crisis within the federal government.
Back in July, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump “had no intention” of firing Mueller. Speaking to Fox News’s Neil Cavuto on Thursday, Trump’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, said: “The president is not thinking about firing Robert Mueller, so the speculation that’s out there is just incorrect.”
There are larger questions: Why was a special counsel appointed to begin with, when both Republicans and Democrats have previously admitted that no compelling evidence of collusion has been uncovered? The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been working on this issue for more than a year, in addition to Congressional investigations and numerous hearings. The answer may well be that a special counsel was appointed as the first step toward involving a Grand Jury, which has recently been empaneled. In turn, a Grand Jury provides the power of subpoena for documents and witnesses. The other possible answer, of course, is that the appointing of a special counsel was a way to keep alive a dying conspiracy theory and go after the president. The choice of Robert Mueller would seem to lend credence to the latter idea; Mueller has close ties to James Comey, the former FBI Director fired by Trump. Rep. Trent Franks (R.-AZ) recently wrote an opinion piece for Fox News, in which he argues that this very relationship – between Comey and Mueller – compels the latter to resign over conflict of interest. Franks points to DOJ rules, regarding investigations:
Disqualification arising from personal or political relationship.
(a) Unless authorized under paragraph (b) of this section, no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with:
(1) Any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; or
(2) Any person or organization which he knows has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.
James Comey headed the FBI during its entire investigation of the Trump-Russia collusion allegations up to the time he was fired. That his involvement in Mueller’s investigation is defined perfectly within these rules cannot be denied. He has both a personal and political relationship with Robert Mueller. Comey succeeded Mueller as FBI Director and the two men have a working relationship that stretches back many years.
A 2013 article in the Washingtonian detailed their close connections and many commonalities. Recounting their time in the FBI during the administration of Bill Clinton, that article states “Mueller, now 68, and Comey, now 52, would become close partners and close allies throughout the years ahead.” The piece describes the two men as “deeply alike, sharing a background and core principles.”
Mueller and Comey, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, were both “mentored and guided by Eric Holder in the 1990s during Holder’s time in the Justice Department under the Clinton administration,” according to the Washingtonian article.
Given Mueller’s background, his ties to the Clintons, Obama and Eric Holder – not to mention his long relationship with James Comey – it seems difficult to imagine why anyone would think him capable of impartially steering an investigation into the campaign of Donald Trump. Franks seems to have raised an issue that is deserving of more consideration. He may even have provided a legitimate reason for the president to pursue Mueller’s removal, should he choose to do so. Neither of the two bills just introduced would protect Mueller, were the president to press the conflict of interest case, using the Department of Justice’s own regulations.