Is President Trump going to fire Robert Mueller? This question is gripping Washington more with each passing day, and the truth is that none of us know the answer, if only because the future is always uncertain. But here's what we do know: We know that Trump madly, fervently, desperately wants to. We know that he's being held back not by his own sense of propriety or restraint (ha!) but by aides who understand that, as Senator Lindsey Graham said, "if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency."
But Trump probably doesn't understand that. He continues to insist that the entire investigation is illegitimate, making clear that he believes he would be perfectly justified in ordering Mueller's firing:
The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2018
There are eight separate assertions in that tweet, seven of which are false (the exception is that the Clinton campaign and the DNC did pay former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele for opposition research on Trump). Like many Trump tweets, this one offers us a window directly into his thoughts. They pulse with all of Trump's dishonesty, his pettiness, his resentments, and his fears.
And right now it appears that Trump is vacillating between triumph and panic as he moves closer to firing Mueller. Amidst all the Trump associates he has turned, Mueller is now examining Trump's finances, and the chances he won't find something illegal going on there are microscopic. Trump's personal lawyer, John Dowd, just called for the Mueller investigation to be shut down. Trump exulted in Friday's firing of Andrew McCabe, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions almost certainly carried out in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the president; McCabe was two days from retirement, and attempting to deprive him of his pension in this way was an act of purely Trumpian pettiness.
Like everyone around Trump, Sessions is trying to navigate his boss's moods and impulses while holding on to his job long enough to accomplish his own goals (in his case, making immigrants live in terror while fighting pot-smoking hippies). They each have to determine how far they can go in accommodating the president while preventing him from destroying himself, and them in the process. And most of them understand that firing Mueller could set off a crisis of a magnitude we haven't seen in over 40 years.
We all know that the ultimate decision to fire Mueller won't be based on some clever long-term strategy or clear-eyed assessment of Trump's legal exposure. It will happen in a fit of rage and fear. It will happen when Trump's aides are unable to dissuade him with their predictions of political disaster. It will be all Trump, borne of his darkest impulses.
Many of Trump's problems come from the fact that in becoming president, for the first time in his life he moved into a position constrained by checks and balances. Every president chafes against those limits, the ability of a variety of people and institutions to keep him from doing what he would rather do, whether it's Congress or the courts or the Constitution. This was completely novel for Trump, who spent a career in business running a private company, one with no board of directors and nobody who could tell him no. In running the Trump Organization, he often acted as though rules, norms, and even the law were for other people, those who lacked his brazenness and ambition.
But now he's hemmed in on all sides, and he plainly finds it infuriating. Not only that, whatever his aides are telling him, he's being urged every single day by the source he trusts most—Fox News—to fire Mueller, the sooner the better. So what happens on the day when after hearing one more aide beg him not to order Mueller fired, he says, "That's it—no more discussion. Get me Sessions. I want Mueller gone today"?
At that point, there will an eruption. Democrats will be enraged, the news media will (properly) treat it as a crisis, and liberals have already put plans in place for protests all over the country. Trump's survival will then depend on how Republicans in Congress respond.
As Nate Silver argued, "We don't know as much as we think we do about how Republicans would react if Mueller were fired, in the same way that a building surviving a magnitude 6 earthquake doesn't tell you that much about how it would respond to a magnitude 8." Which is true enough, but we should keep in mind that when the moment comes, what's in each Republican's conscience will be less important than what's in their interest, as least as they perceive it. We've already seen that those consciences are extremely malleable; they'll accommodate a president who uses the Oval Office for personal financial gain, who brags of his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, who lies constantly, and who is more manifestly unfit than anyone who has ever held that office. What's one more outrage?
Because they're politicians, they'll be asking themselves, "How is this going to affect me?" At that point, the calculation will involve whether they think it's possible for the whole thing to blow over, and for the elections of 2018 and 2020 to be, if inevitably bad for their party, still within the range of normal politics. If they think they can help keep a lid on the Russia scandal by keeping everyone in their partisan camps, they'll do so. That won't completely insulate them from danger in 2018, but it might be enough to save them.
But if they feel that the scandal has reached such a level that its shock wave is about to flatten the entire political landscape—in other words, if instead of Watergate in 1972 (something people talked about but that didn't keep Richard Nixon from getting re-elected) it becomes Watergate in 1974 (which brought down a government), they'll start asking whether defending Trump has become much more trouble than it's worth. They may decide that as far as they've come with Trump, they have no choice but to stick with him no matter the cost. Or they may scurry away like rats fleeing a sinking ship. It's just too early to tell. But as Representative Trey Gowdy said this weekend, if Trump fires Mueller "it's going to be very, very long bad 2018."