Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy set off a firestorm when he suggested that President Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s overseeing the FBI’s Russia investigation. (Trump has “no intention” of firing Mueller, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last night). Trump surrogates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich don’t believe Trump would take such an explosive step. Could he? Legal experts say yes, Politico reports. The regulations governing independent investigations make clear that the special counsel can be removed “only by the personal action of the Attorney General.” Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe, the responsibility would fall to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who Trump could order to fire Mueller. If Rosenstein refused, Trump could fire him and continue down the line until a DOJ official acquiesced.
In 1973, amid the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson and his deputy refused. Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out Nixon’s order. “That was the beginning of the end of Mr. Nixon,” said law Prof. Paul Rothstein of Georgetown University, who affirmed the legality of a hypothetical Mueller firing, but noted the “tremendous political repercussions.” There is another path Trump could take, says Yale law professor Akhil Amar. The regulations that govern the special counsel were issued by the Department of Justice and could be rescinded by DOJ. If the regulations were rescinded, Trump would no longer be required to cite any cause in removing Mueller. The political price for any removal would be steep. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) suggested it could lead Congress to re-establish an independent counsel statute and reappoint Mueller.