Emboldened to throw off the shackles

Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair thinks Trump may fire Sessions soon.

From the moment Donald Trump appointed Chief of Staff John Kelly last summer, he vented to friends and advisers that Kelly was too overbearing, preventing him from acting on his instincts and impulses, the things that got him elected president. To truly be himself, Trump turned to Twitter and Fox & Friends. But over the past week, even though Kelly is still nominally on the scene, his presidency has entered a new phase—one in which Trump feels emboldened to throw off the shackles that have thus far constrained him.

That’s bad. We don’t want Trump feeling emboldened. We want Trump feeling emfrightened; we want Trump feeling small and weak and out of place. We want him longing for the good old days on 57th Street. We want him thinking about quitting.

Speaking to reporters shortly after tweeting that he had replaced Tillerson at Foggy Bottom with hardline C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo, Trump indicated he would soon move against his remaining antagonists, many of whom he appointed with glee, in the executive branch. “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” he said.

Normal, halfway competent presidents don’t go about getting the Cabinets they want by trial and error, they do the work to get it right the first time. The fault for having the Cabinet he didn’t want is Trump’s, not anyone else’s.

One hire he seems to want is John Bolton, who wants to bomb Iran, so that should work out a treat.

But he also still plans to fire Sessions.

According to two Republicans in regular contact with the White House, there have been talks that Trump could replace Sessions with E.P.A. Administrator Scott Pruitt, who would not be recused from overseeing the Russia probe. Also, as an agency head and former state attorney general, Pruitt would presumably have a good shot at passing a Senate confirmation hearing.

And then he could fire Mueller.

That put me into a bit of a panic this morning, but friends on Facebook told me even firing Mueller won’t necessarily stop the investigation.

Regardless, though, the removal of Mueller wouldn’t necessarily stop the case in its tracks. Whoever was responsible for that firing could appoint another special counsel, for one thing; it was, in fact, the work of Archibald Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, that led to some of the most significant court findings in the Watergate scandal.

Even if there was no successor forthcoming, the case and investigation could and probably would continue on its own as a regular FBI inquiry.

Starting an investigation at the FBI is a formal process, requiring agents to demonstrate evidence of a criminal predicate to move to what’s known as a “full field” investigation, and, similarly, closing an investigation requires a formal decision to “decline” charges. The “Mueller probe” isn’t actually a single case; at this point there are multiple independent investigations underway, including into Paul Manafort and Rick Gates’ former business dealings, into the campaign’s separate dealings with Russian officials, and into possible obstruction of justice around Jim Comey’s firing.

Some of those cases were well underway before Mueller took over—it was, in fact, the early work of investigators that led to the guilty pleas last fall of George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn—and others have been launched since. All would and could continue without him. Without Mueller, the assigned FBI agents would return to the Washington Field Office and the prosecution would be placed, most likely, under the supervision of either the US attorney in DC or the Eastern District of Virginia, where the court cases are already playing out.

Perhaps the key lesson of Mueller’s investigation thus far has been that at every step, Mueller and his investigative dream team have known more and been further ahead in their process than the public anticipated or realized. At every stage, Mueller has surprised the public and witnesses before him with his depth of knowledge and detail—and he shocked the public with news last fall that Papadopoulos had been arrested, been cooperating, and pleaded guilty, all without a single hint of a leak. The news last week that Comey himself had testified before Mueller’s team weeks earlier continues the pattern that even amid the most scrutinized investigation in history, Mueller is moving methodically forward, with cards up his sleeve to play.

There’s no reason to believe, in fact, that Mueller—who has surrounded himself with some of the most thoughtful minds of the Justice Department, including Michael Dreeban, arguably the country’s top appellate lawyer, whose career has focused on looking down the road at how cases might play out months or even years later—hasn’t been organizing his investigation since day one with the expectation that he’d someday be fired and worked to ensure that this, his final chapter in a lifetime of public service at the Justice Department, won’t be curtailed before it has gotten to what Mueller calls “ground truth.”

So. Panic abated.

H/t Ken Cope

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