Only President Donald Trump knows for sure if he has decided to fire special counsel Robert Mueller or senior staffers at the U.S. Department of Justice.
But White House aides and members of Congress, responding to the president’s angry tweets and to on-the-record statements by his spokespeople, are scrambling to prepare themselves for the possibility, and its fallout.
Asked about fresh investigative steps by U.S. law enforcement agents against the President’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders on Friday said, “The president’s been clear that he has a deep concern about the direction the special counsel has taken.”
She declined to say whether Trump intended to fire Mueller or his immediate superior, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Trump himself has sent mixed signals. In a tweet on Wednesday, the President called Mueller’s investigation “Fake & Corrupt” and said the special counsel was “the most conflicted of all.” But on Thursday he tweeted what sounded like an endorsement of the approach advocated by his lawyers of maintaining a “cooperative, disciplined approach” to engagement with Mueller’s investigation.
The uncertainty has some at the White House hoping that the crisis that would follow a firing of the special counsel or others at Justice might be averted. “I’m not anticipating that,” legislative affairs director Marc Short told TIME Friday when asked about the prospect of Trump firing Mueller or top Justice Department officials any time soon.
And some members of Congress appear to be trying to talk the president down from any dramatic moves. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley have said that firing Mueller or Rosenstein would be very damaging for the president. In response to a question from TIME Friday, Sanders said that Trump speaks with lawmakers regularly and would “continue consulting with them” on the Mueller investigation and other issues.
At the Capitol, members of Congress are nevertheless coming up with action plans for how to respond to any Trump firings, including advancing legislation to protect Mueller.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is moving forward a bipartisan bill, co-authored by Graham and fellow Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey, that is a combination of two prior legislative efforts to safeguard the special counsel. The new bill would codify existing Justice Department regulations saying that the special counsel can only be fired by a senior Justice Department official for “good cause,” and would add a 10-day window during which Mueller could appeal his firing to a panel of judges to determine whether the “good cause” standard was met.
Staffers for both Booker and Coons, the two Democratic sponsors, note the judicial review window as one of the key aspects of the bill. “We think it makes sense to spell out what happens next,” says an aide to Coons. “Because there will be a lot of uncertainty and frankly panic in the country if something like that were to happen, and that doesn’t serve anyone’s interest.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday “the consequences of firing Mr. Rosenstein, Mr. Mueller, or issuing political pardons would be dire for our democracy.” The New York Democrat applauded the bill and said, “We in Congress have that power to prevent that constitutional crisis and to do it right away. We have the power to protect the Special Counsel’s investigation.”
But even among those who want to protect Mueller’s probe, there is distrust.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who said this week it would be “suicide” for Trump to try to fire Mueller, has pushed to bring the bipartisan bill before his committee. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, has slowed it down over concerns about an amendment Grassley wants to add. The amendment, which as of Friday Democrats haven’t seen, would require reports be submitted to Congress at “major junctures” in the investigation, according to a Republican Judiciary Committee aide, including if the investigation changes scope or in advance of the firing the special counsel.
“What that does is it allows Congress to exercise its constitutional oversight authorities; [it’s] just a general check and balance process to ensure that we are well informed of what’s going on,” says the aide. It is a way, the aide says, to ensure “there’s a good justification for whatever is being done.”
Democrats fret that Grassley’s amendment could be too broad, requiring regular updates to Congress on the investigation’s progress in a way that would hinder it rather than provide oversight. “I’m worried about an amendment we haven’t been able to review that could undermine the investigation,” Feinstein said in a statement Thursday.
“She’s worried that more information to Congress would be not good?” the Republican judiciary aide asks incredulously. “I would think that people on both sides of the aisle in Congress would want more information rather than less about decisions made in the course of the investigation.”
Some senators also have constitutional concerns about the bill limiting the President’s authority to fire executive branch officials, concerns that Grassley has recognized.
For all that, even as Grassley brings the bill to his committee next week, there’s broad recognition that it has a slim chance of passage. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who would make the decision to bring it to a vote by the full Senate, said this week he hasn’t seen a “clear indication yet” that a bill like this is necessary. And in the end, absent a veto-proof supermajority in the Senate, Trump would have to sign the bill for it to become law, an event many view as unlikely.
Nevertheless, senators have been raising this issue for months; the original bills that were merged into the current effort were introduced last August. And aides for both Booker and Coons say they’re seeing more emphasis on this issue now and more openness from Republicans to take it up. “We think it’s really important in a highly polarized time to send a bipartisan message about the special counsel investigation and its role in upholding the rule of law in this country,” says the Coons staffer. And while this bill would serve future special counsels as well, the aide notes, “What’s happening now shines a spotlight on the need and creates a sense of urgency.”
On Friday, the White House announced the pardon of Scooter Libby, a former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice as part of an investigation undertaken by another special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, who is a Comey pal. President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence of 30 months in prison, but did not pardon him. Some worried that Trump was trying to signal a willingness to others involved in special counsel investigations that he wasn’t afraid of using his pardon powers. “It’s not about me, it’s absolutely not about Scooter Libby, it’s about Donald Trump and his future,” Valerie Plame, the former CIA agent whose identity was leaked by Libby, told MSNBC on Friday. “It’s very clear that this is a message he is sending that you can commit crimes against national security and you will be pardoned.” Sanders denied that the Libby pardon was a message to Mueller. “One thing has nothing to do with the other,” she said.
As of 6 p.m. on Friday, both Mueller and Rosenstein still had their jobs. That left most in Washington holding their breath into the weekend, at the end of an extraordinary week.
With reporting by Brian Bennett and Philip Elliott/Washington