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Messing with Mueller: How Trump can risk his presidency

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.

President Donald Trump was within his rights Wednesday to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As the phrase goes, administration officials “serve at the pleasure of the president.” Obviously, Trump was displeased with Sessions for recusing himself from any Russia-related investigation. “Our beleaguered A.G.,” Trump called him. “What kind of a man is this?” Trump wondered in an interview. It seems Trump equated recusal with disloyalty.

The issue isn’t whether Trump reviled Sessions, but what comes next? Specifically, what are the president’s intentions regarding special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation? If Trump or his administration move to impede or end Mueller’s work, the president will do so at his own peril. Many in the country — us included — would see that as an attack on the rule of law and a blatant effort to subvert justice.

As far as we know, Mueller’s team continues to work toward its conclusions without interference. Among the questions Mueller is exploring: whether any member of Trump’s campaign colluded with a foreign power — Russia — and whether Trump committed obstruction of justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey. Mueller was appointed special counsel by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. But with Sessions now gone, Mueller reports to the acting attorney general Trump appointed Wednesday. That is Matthew Whitaker, who had been Sessions’ chief of staff.

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No president would be thrilled with having a special prosecutor sniffing around. Trump being Trump — a hothead who doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good rant — he’s made it clear he’d fire Mueller if he could. But he hasn’t. So why fire Sessions, and why now?

Maybe Trump knows he realistically can’t fire Mueller but could look tough by dumping Sessions.

Firing Sessions also may have been a way for Trump to signal impatience with the pace of Mueller’s progress, not that the special counsel would flinch. As an aside, there’s reason to think Mueller is moving toward a conclusion, given that he’s been on the job for 18 months and already brought down a slew of indictments.

It’s also possible that Wednesday, the day after the election, was Trump’s first good chance to do any of this. With Republicans strengthening their control of the Senate, confirming a new attorney general won’t be difficult.

What’s impossible to divine is Whitaker’s thinking. Before joining the Justice Department last year, Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa, sounded skeptical about Mueller. He raised the notion of the investigation being a “fishing expedition.” Whitaker also used one of Trump’s stock criticisms of Mueller’s work: “witch hunt.” Yet there’s a big difference between opining as a private citizen and opining after being appointed, even temporarily, the nation’s chief legal officer. We presume Whitaker understands the stakes and his obligation to the Constitution, even if Trump sounds unclear on the concepts. Whitaker is scheduled to be on the job for up to 210 days.

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There is a prudent role for Congress to play to thwart any Trump shenanigans: legislation to protect Mueller or another special counsel from a political firing by the president. The bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, would give any fired special counsel the chance to challenge that action in court.

A special counsel or special prosecutor should be a rare beast, employed only to investigate allegations when a conflict of interest precludes using traditional channels. But when a special counsel probe is underway, its integrity must be protected. We await Mueller’s findings and anticipate that his report will be released to all Americans. If Trump tries to tamper with the investigation, the House, soon to be under Democratic control, likely would move to impeach.

This is one of those odd but necessary periods of watchful waiting on Trump. His combative nature and rash decision-making give a lot of people fits – us included. Maybe firing Sessions was no more than an act of frustration. If it was the first step toward firing Mueller, Trump risks destroying his presidency.

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