Russia investigation
Robert Mueller was called upon to lead the Russia investigation after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Photo: Getty Images

On Monday night, Chris Ruddy, a friend of President Trump's, told "PBS NewsHour" host Judy Woodruff that the president was "considering perhaps terminating the special counsel" appointed to oversee the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller.

 

This followed a weekend of rumors that the president might do so, spurred by Trump's charges that fired FBI Director James Comey was a "leaker" (technically, he wasn't) and by Republicans' charges that Mueller was illegitimately appointed because of the release of Comey’s memos and because three members of his team had donated to Democrats in the past.

 

Some things to know about the potential act and its implications:

 

• It's within the president's power to do so. The special counsel, who reports to the attorney general, serves at the pleasure of the president.

 

• A special counsel is not the same as an independent counsel — which is appointed by Congress, not the attorney general — and operates outside of the Department of Justice. The provisions for establishing that office expired in 1999. 

• How Trump would do it: He can't fire the special counsel directly. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from the Russia investigation and can't either. Trump could order Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general, to do it. Rosenstein could refuse to and resign, in which case Trump would go down the chain of command at the Department of Justice until he found an official willing to do so. This was President Nixon's methodology in what is considered a turning point in the Watergate scandal, the "Saturday Night Massacre."

• It might cause a constitutional crisis. "The questions raised so far by Trumpgate are similar [to Watergate]: How much power does the president have over the executive branch? Is it obstruction of justice if the president does it? Can the president be indicted?" writes David Frum in The Daily Beast.

• It might not cause Republicans to abandon the president en masse. "A wholesale mutiny among Republicans, however, would not be guaranteed — even then," writes conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin for the Washington Post. "The sad answer is that these Republicans won't act out of principle, won't challenge the right-wing echo chamber and won't give up the delusion that they can get parts of their agenda through."

• But Mueller might be brought back. On Sunday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, the ranking member of the House Committee on Intelligence, said that if Mueller were fired, Congress would rehire him again as an independent counsel beyond the reach of the president or Department of Justice. This maneuver would be tricky and perhaps impossible. It would require reinstating the independent counsel provisions and necessitate the cooperation of Republicans, a tall order.