Democratic senator: it’s a “very real possibility” that Trump fires Mueller

By:  Zachary-Fryer Biggs

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether President Donald Trump will try to fire special counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the two men who wield the most power in the Russia investigation.

A series of scandals, with the FBI raiding the office of Trump’s personal lawyer and a string of Trump associates cooperating with the Mueller probe, has increased pressure on Trump and led him to lash out at Mueller and Rosenstein.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would try to protect Mueller, who is leading the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Even Trump allies like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are warning the president not to fire the special counsel, calling such a move “suicide.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), is one of those concerned. When Heinrich and I spoke by phone on Thursday, he described the moment as an impending crisis for the country. He also expressed fears that the president could use a military strike on Syria to divert news coverage from a Justice Department purge.

Heinrich serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is currently in the middle of its own investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

You’ve expressed concern that Trump will interfere with special counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation. What do you think he might do?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

I’m broadly worried about this president not understanding how important prosecutorial independence is in a democracy. I worry that they [the Trump administration] have a view that they can dismiss special counsel Mueller, when that is not what the law states. I also worry that they may dismiss Rod Rosenstein in the coming days. We’re getting a lot of very concerning signals.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

What are those concerning signals that you mentioned?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

Conversations that I’m having with my colleagues about the state of the White House right now, and about the willingness of the president to act unilaterally, in ways that are not necessarily bounded by the rule of law.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

Those conversations have you worried that he might take immediate action?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

We’ve had a difficult dance in my caucus [among Democrats] in terms of confirming a number of the people who serve the administration. While you may not agree with various positions, a lot of the decisions had to be made based on just wanting some adults in the room. And the influence of the “adults in the room” crew seems to be waning at the White House.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

President Trump tweeted on Thursday that he agreed with White House lawyer Ty Cobb’s advice to cooperate with the special counsel. Does that give you any encouragement that Trump may not try to interfere with Mueller?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

I don’t think you can take a lot from the president’s tweets except that he is highly erratic, and that he will say one thing one day and say something else the next day. That’s part of the problem.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

Do you think he’s going to fire Mueller?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

My gut tells me that is a very real possibility.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

Do you think the bill introduced in the Senate yesterday to protect Mueller could pass, and do you think there’s anything else the Senate could do to try to protect the special counsel’s investigation?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

Oh, there’s a lot we could do. It will require partnership, and it will be up to our Republican colleagues to see how they step up at this moment in history. If the worst happens, they may have to make some very difficult decisions about whether their loyalty is to the president or whether their loyalty is to the republic.

I don’t envy them in that, but that will be required for there to be a solution that preserves prosecutorial independence. If we can’t preserve rule of law, then we’re a banana republic; we’re only as good as our last election.

We have survived for 240 years as a country because there are institutions that are more important than who the president is at any given moment, or who’s in the Senate or on the Supreme Court. We have to defend those institutions.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

What do you make of the president’s claim yesterday that the Mueller probe is the largest source of “bad blood” between the US and Russia right now?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

I don’t take the president as an expert on diplomacy with Russia.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

Are you also concerned that the president might try to intervene in the ongoing Senate investigation into Russian meddling?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

At the moment, that has not been a concern. I think the president’s behavior likely stems from the fact that he views the Department of Justice as a whole as being his lawyers, instead of being the independent law enforcement and prosecutorial arm of the US government. When you view the Justice Department in that way, it sets you up for a lot of conflicts because that’s not how our system is designed.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

While President Trump is trying to manage pressure from the Russia investigation, he also seems to be on the verge of bombing Syria. The US military received blood samplesshowing that Syria’s Assad regime used chemical weapons in the city of Douma on April 7. Do you think striking Syria will deter the use of chemical weapons, either by Assad or another actor in the future?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

It can be an effective deterrent. It depends on how it is designed, communicated, and implemented. You know, my concern with Syria right now is the convergence of events. I think there’s a great deal of concern that a cruise missile strike on Syria could easily become a smokescreen for a White House that wants to flood the zone on media at a time when they move to remove someone at the Department of Justice.

Are we really talking about Syria here, or are we talking about Syria because the White House doesn’t want to talk about the Department of Justice?

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

That would be a remarkable move — to strike and potentially put US troops at risk just to distract from the Justice Department.

Sen. Martin Heinrich

It sure would.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

But you think that’s a real possibility?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

Yeah, I do.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

You’ve generally stuck to pretty measured criticisms about President Trump in the past, but you’re making some pretty dramatic statements today. What’s changed?

Sen. Martin Heinrich

I fear we are at a moment in history that we certainly haven’t experienced in decades that has the potential to influence the future path of this country for 100 years. And we need to get it right.