Trump stirs concerns of Mueller, Rosenstein firings

Catherine Lucey
Associated Press

Washington — With federal agents digging into his personal affairs, Donald Trump drove his West Wing into deeper tumult Tuesday, canceling a South American trip to consider a military strike in Syria and bidding farewell to another top aide amid a continual staffing shakeup.

Trump, still fuming after agents on Monday raided the office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has privately pondered firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and publicly mused about firing special counsel Robert Mueller. The raid, in which agents seized records on topics including a $130,000 payment to a porn actress who alleges she had sex with Trump in 2006, comes as the president weighs imminent military action in Syria and ahead of what was supposed to be his first trip to Latin America this weekend.

Trump had been telling confidants for weeks that he was not eager to make the three-day trip, which had already been shortened from original plans, according to two people who have discussed it with him in recent weeks but were not authorized to disclose the private conversations. His decision not to travel was publicly tied to the need to monitor the situation in Syria, but privately Trump said he didn’t want to be away from the White House amid developments in the China trade dispute and in the Mueller investigation.

A year ago, the president ordered a round of airstrikes while hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at his private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago.

Trump also expressed confidence in the loyalty displayed by Cohen, his longtime personal and professional fixer, who ascended to one of the most powerful roles at the Trump Organization not filled by a family member. Cohen has steadfastly denied wrongdoing in his payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and has publicly defended Trump, but he has confided in associates that he is fearful of being a fall guy, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.

After the raid, Trump was the most irate his advisers had seen him in weeks, according to five people familiar with the president’s views but not authorized to discuss them publicly. Trump tweeted Tuesday that “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” Nervous White House aides expressed new fears about the president’s unpredictability in the face of the Cohen raid, which he viewed as an assault on a longtime defender and a sign that Mueller’s probe into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign was “going too far.”

Cohen has said he took out a personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 election without Trump’s knowledge. The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and based in part on a referral from Mueller.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made clear that White House officials have explored Trump’s authority to fire Mueller.

“He certainly believes that he has the power to do so,” she said at Tuesday’s press briefing.

Under Justice Department regulations, only Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation, can fire Mueller.

Senior Republicans in Congress warned that it would be a major mistake or even political suicide to fire Mueller.

“I don’t think the president’s going to fire him. That would be a big mistake,” John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said Tuesday.

Cornyn declined to say how Congress would react to a Mueller firing or whether that might trigger impeachment proceedings against Trump. “I don’t think he or I or anybody could predict what the consequences might be. So I think, just let Mr. Mueller do his job.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said earlier on the Fox Business Network that “it would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller.

“The main thing here is I have confidence in Mueller, the president ought to have confidence in Mueller,” Grassley said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Mueller should “be allowed to finish the job.”

Two senior Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia, said that firing Mueller would cross a line with Congress. Schumer, during a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, called for passage of legislation to prevent Mueller from being removed.

Later, Schumer reiterated to reporters that while Republicans for months have claimed there is no reason to pass legislation to protect Mueller, “Let’s not wait until it’s too late.”

“Why not pass the legislation now and avoid a constitutional crisis?” he said.

Mueller, meanwhile, appears to be attempting to insulate his investigation from potential interference himself. The Cohen raid is the latest example of this strategy, current and former government officials said. Because it was conducted under the auspices of the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, evidence seized can be shared with Mueller as needed or preserved if the special counsel is removed, the officials said.

Trump spent Monday evening calling associates to vent and gauge their reaction to the news. He bitterly complained that the raids were meant to ruin Cohen’s life and expressed frustration that it was another front from which to attack his presidency, according to a person familiar with the conversations but not permitted to discuss them publicly.

Trump also revived his broadsides on Rosenstein and, in particular, Rosenstein’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he belittled to confidants for recusing himself from the investigation and, in turn, delivering him to Mueller.

The White House insisted Trump was focused on the response to Syria following the country’s apparent use of chemical weapons on civilians over the weekend, killing more than 40 people. A military strike would mark Trump’s second retaliatory strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government at a time when Trump is seeking to reduce the U.S. footprint in Syria.

The discussions come as Trump’s newest national security adviser, John Bolton, stepped into the job this week. He encouraged Trump to skip the trip to South America to manage the Syria strategy.

Bolton, a seasoned bureaucratic operator, has been expected to put his stamp on the National Security Council staff. NSC spokesman Michael Anton resigned over the weekend, with two people familiar with the situation saying Anton resigned after learning he would be fired. Trump’s homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, exited Tuesday. Bossert had overseen the administration’s response to the 2017 hurricane season and was credited by his colleagues for leading the administration’s efforts to bolster cybersecurity resiliency across government and private industry.

Asked if Bolton forced Bossert out, Sanders said: “I’m not going to get into specific details about the ongoings of personnel, but I can tell you that he resigned. The president feels he’s done a great job and wishes him the best.”

The mood at the NSC this week was described as grim, with aides fearful over Bolton’s plans. More senior-level departures are expected in the coming weeks, said two people familiar with the dynamic but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Trump’s administration has set records for turnover in his 15 months in office at all levels, with Bossert marking at least the 13th official who held the rank of assistant to the president at the start of the administration to depart.

There is growing concern in Trump’s orbit that the turmoil will only continue following the release next week of former FBI director James Comey’s book, which promises to reveal new details about his conversations with the president and the Russia probe. An administration official said the White House would largely defer to outside surrogates to push back on Comey, but there was concern as to how the director’s interviews could rile up the president.

Bloomberg News contributed.