A few short weeks ago, former FBI Director Robert Mueller III was appointed to lead the federal investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. However, a friend of the president told PBS NewsHour on Monday that Trump may fire the special counsel. Now the question on everyone's mind is: What will happen if Mueller is ousted?
Trump has not publicly said he intends to fire the man brought in by the deputy attorney general to investigate possible collusion between Trump advisers and Russian officials. And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement to The New York Times that the friend who made this claim — Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media — never spoke to the president about the issue. However, Trump has opposed bringing in special counsel from the beginning, telling reporters days after Mueller was appointed, "I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country."
If Trump does want Mueller off the investigation, he couldn't fire the attorney himself. The position of special counsel resides within the Justice Department, and because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would have to fire Mueller, though he's said he sees no reason to.
Rosentstein answers to the president, so in theory Trump could pressure him to get rid of the special counsel. That's precisely what happened in 1973, when President Nixon ordered the attorney general to terminate the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. The attorney general refused the order and resigned, and when Nixon asked the deputy attorney general to do the same; he also resigned. The solicitor general eventually fired the special prosecutor.
This contentious event, known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," ended with a federal district judge ruling that firing the special counsel was illegal without evidence of impropriety.
Because Justice Department rules don't allow special counsel to be terminated for no reason, Trump would have to ask Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to change the rules. If Rosenstein refused, Trump could fire him — or he could resign, mimicking the "Saturday Night Massacre."
Whether or not Mueller would be replaced if ousted is unclear. Rosenstein chose to bring in special counsel and could seemingly decide it's not necessary to replace Mueller. After all, Trump's alleged issue isn't with Mueller, but with the presence of special counsel in general. Democrats in Congress would certainly call for the position to be filled again, but their powers are limited here. Congress only has the ability to request special counsel; it cannot appoint anyone on its own. However, the congressional investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election would not be affected if Mueller was fired.