Monday, December 18, 2017

Stop saying Trump can fire Mueller

Can people stop asking the President whether he will fire Mueller, and stop writing stories about whether the President will fire him? The President doesn't have the power to fire a Special Counsel. Under the law, "the Special Counsel may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General" and the AG can only remove the Special Counsel "for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies," while giving a written explanation of the basis for the removal.

Because Attorney General Sessions has recused himself from this investigation, that would mean that only Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has the power to fire Mueller, and he can only exercise that power if there is one of the specific bases for removing him. Just last week, Rosenstein testified before Congress that he sees no basis for removing Mueller.

The only way for Trump to "fire" Muller is if he orders Rosenstein to fire Mueller, presumably with some made-up misconduct allegation. If Rosenstein refuses, then Trump can fire Rosenstein in the hopes that Rosenstein's successor would do what the President wants. If that person refuses, Trump could fire him/her, and keep going down the chain until he finds the person who is willing to make up a reason to fire the Independent Counsel.

While eventually that method might lead to Mueller's removal, it would also lead to immediate litigation over the validity of the termination. Effectively the courts would have to evaluate the validity of whatever "cause" that Rosenstein or his more-compliant successor comes up with to justify removal under the regulations, and they would have the final say whether Mueller is fired, not the President.

So the President doesn't decide whether Mueller is fired. All he can do is apply pressure by threatening the job of the person who does get to decide, and even if that pressure works, the judicial system would be where the final decision is made.

By repeatedly asking the question whether Trump will fire Mueller, reporters are creating the impression (both with the public and with the President himself) that is something he can do. Sure, the President should know better. But this is Trump we are talking about. I have no doubt he thinks he can fire Mueller and is going to have a hissy fit when he finds out that he really can't.

ADDING: Yeah, I know I wrote a post about how Trump can't fire Mueller 6 months ago. Even though plenty of people know the regulations prohibit anyone from the AG (or acting AG) from firing a Special Counsel, almost every news story I see takes it as a given that Trump could fire Mueller if he wants, whenever he wants, for whatever reason he wants. None of that is true. It is worth pointing out how the President is limited legally, while acknowledging that Trump may be able to cause Mueller to be fired by firing a bunch of acting AGs à la Saturday night massacre.