Does anyone doubt it?
Question from a political source: “Why do reporters keep asking/goading Trump to fire Mueller?”
It’s a good question.
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) April 10, 2018
I’ve thought this a lot. Even the “red line” every article about this cites was basically suggested by an interviewer, not something Trump volunteered. Often feels like they’re nudging him to do something crazy because it’d make a grest story. https://t.co/PYY4Fz6kfX
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) April 10, 2018
It’d be the story of a lifetime. Today’s national political correspondents were too young for Watergate. They’ll never have a Saturday Night Massacre or a constitutional crisis or a GOP torn in two by the president’s increasingly reckless and imperious attempts to obstruct justice … unless Trump fires Mueller. If he does, they get to write the first draft of history on one of two great sagas. If Washington rallies to Mueller’s defense, it’s the story of how American institutions rose up to resist the cynical charismatic populist who thought the rules didn’t apply to him. If Washington splits, with Republicans rallying to Trump’s defense, it’s the story of Night Falling On America. Great stuff either way. Juicy!
But there’s more to it. It’s a cliche by now that Trump’s presidency feels like a reality show gone off the rails but what doesn’t get noticed as much is how seduced the media has been by the theatrical aspects of it. The president’s thinking is of interest in any administration, but during a ho-hum presidency most of the action is on policy. What is the White House doing abroad? What legislation is it preparing to push domestically? With Trump it feels like exponentially larger amounts of coverage are devoted to his mindset or just his mood, not only in terms of Russiagate but vis-a-vis his advisors, foreign leaders — pretty much everything except policy, which features only occasionally. A classic example from Axios, which loves this genre of reporting:
Sources close to the president say that a political dispute with special counsel Robert Mueller has turned visceral and personal after the feds’ raid on the New York offices of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer…
Until now, when storms hit, Trump could turn to Hope Hicks to explain things to him, suggest wording, simmer him down. With her departure from the White House, we saw the president working out his fury in real time.
The source continued: “This is the first crisis post-Hope Hicks. … This was different: I’ve never seen him like this before. … This is the president you’re going to see more of from here on out: unvarnished, untethered.”
That’s from Mike Allen, who used to write Politico’s ultra-insidery Playbook feature, so go figure that he’s focused on the president’s personality (especially a day after the Cohen raid). But it’s not just Allen. Maggie Haberman, the NYT’s star White House reporter, regularly chimes in on Twitter with updates about the president’s mood. Other journos frequently tweet dispatches from sources relaying how angry POTUS is at this or that, which cabinet member he’s been trash-talking that day to confidants, details of blow-ups with John Kelly, yadda yadda.
In fairness, Trump makes that sort of analysis irresistible in certain ways. He is in fact a loose cannon, far less predictable than any other president in my lifetime. His White House leaks like a sieve and he seems to feel no compunction about chattering about his aides to his friends, who reliably convey his thoughts to reporters for the next “who’s up, who’s down” feature. It’s an orgy of gossip. Meanwhile, he shares his inner thoughts to a degree none of his predecessors did by popping off on Twitter every day. And he’s a natural-born showman who seems to relish personal conflict, the key ingredient for all good drama — with Kelly, Sessions, Rosenstein, Priebus, Bannon, McMaster, Shulkin, and of course Mueller. This is high drama and he’s the protagonist. Of course the media’s going to spend much of its time parsing what the protagonist is thinking and why.
And so what would be more dramatic than a confrontation between the hero/antihero and the Inspector Javert who keeps haunting him? This show has to be building to something. We’re not about to do a string of boring “episodes” in which the hero tries to negotiate trade policy with China. Firing Mueller would be the fulfillment of Trump’s defining personality traits — hubristic, reckless, authoritarian, shady as hell. It has to happen. Character is destiny.
Plus, it would give the media a clear-cut example of Trump acting villainously in a momentous way, which is a story they’re itching to write. They ding him for bad behavior all the time but some of it is common to politicians (lying) and some of it just isn’t sexy enough to galvanize the public (ethical lapses). Every now and then, like with his Charlottesville “very fine people on both sides” comments, he’ll say or do something highly dubious in a big spot and they can go to town on him. Nothing would be bigger than him firing Mueller. It’d be Rule of Law versus the Strongman. Of course they’re excited to do that story. He’s probably excited to give it to them.
Here’s Sarah Sanders at today’s briefing insisting that Trump believes he has the power to fire Mueller. (He also believes the Russiagate probe has “gone too far,” she said elsewhere, but I suppose that’s not really news.) The conventional wisdom is that Trump *can’t* fire Mueller directly because, under extant regulations, the special counsel answers only to the Attorney General or, in this case, the deputy Attorney General. We shall see. The unitary executive theory would counter that all executive branch officials are answerable to the president under Article II. If Trump wants a DOJ employee out, he’s out, whatever the regulations say. Which way would SCOTUS go on that? Another exciting story for the media!