On Thursday evening, The New York Times reported that Donald Trump in June 2017 tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, but backed down after White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign. The episode formed an eerie parallel to Watergate’s Saturday Night Massacre, with the country discovering last night that it narrowly escaped a historic constitutional crisis last summer.
The timing of the report, coming some seven months after the event, has led to speculation that someone close to the episode, perhaps McGahn himself, leaked to the Times in order to prevent Trump from firing Mueller now. The thinking is that the subsequent blowback will discourage Trump from doing so.
But if the leaker bought Mueller some time, the investigation is by no means safe. In addition to the possibility that Trump was on the verge of firing Mueller, there are signs that the Republican Party is preparing the groundwork for his ouster. Republicans have stepped up their efforts to discredit the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, seizing on anti-Trump text messages sent by a fired member of the Mueller investigation to claim that a sinister conspiracy to remove the president is underway. While Trump has publicly played nice with Mueller in recent days, this fevered activity on the right suggests that Republicans are preparing an all-out assault if the investigation to take a more serious turn.
Meanwhile, Republicans have dismissed the Times report as being a nothing-burger. After all, the president didn’t fire Mueller, so what’s the big deal? Then there are people like Sean Hannity, who said Trump had “the right” to ask questions about Mueller’s supposed conflicts of interest. If Trump thinks that he can weather the storm, the Times report might end up being a catalyst for him to get rid of Mueller.
The Mueller investigation is, once again, in trouble. It seems that people inside the White House are doing what they can to preserve its integrity, but Republicans on the outside are doing everything but.