Trump ally Chris Ruddy has caused quite a stir over the past 24 hours.
The CEO of the right-wing website Newsmax, a close friend of Trump’s, has been making the media rounds saying President Trump is considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Department of Justice investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel,” Ruddy told PBS NewsHour Monday night, though he went on to say he thinks, personally, it would be a bad idea. “I think he’s weighing that option. I think it’s pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake.”
Why not, right?
It’s believable enough. After all, Trump fired James Comey as FBI director. Trump reportedly told top Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that pressure is now taken off after firing Comey. And here’s that lawyer interview Ruddy was referring to:
But firing Mueller would be a political bomb in Washington. Mueller, the former FBI director, is widely respected on both sides of the aisle, something that’s pretty tough to do in Washington nowadays.
Both Democrats and Republicans pushed back.
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the move would have the unintended consequence of keeping Mueller in charge:
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the move would be a “disaster” and, he added, “There’s no reason to fire Mueller. What’s he done to be fired?”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it would be “extraordinarily unwise.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Tuesday he had confidence in Mueller and that he should be left alone to conduct an independent investigation, NPR’s Susan Davis reports. “These investigations are important,” Ryan said. “They need to be independent. The need to be thorough. They need to go where the facts go. But we also have a duty to serve the people that elected us to fix the problems that they are confronting in their daily lives and that’s what we’re doing.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accused the media of “creating a rumor that’s not happening.”
The White House forcefully disputed Ruddy’s claims, saying he speaks for himself, not the president.
“Mr. Ruddy never spoke to the president regarding this issue,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “With respect to this subject, only the president or his attorneys are authorized to comment.”
Of course, neither of those statements is a denial that Trump is considering it. The move would be Nixonian. Trump himself does not have the authority to directly fire the special counsel. That would have to be done by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from DOJ’s Russia investigation.
Both Rosenstein and Sessions are testifying Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Rosenstein was asked about it and answered this way, “You have my assurance that Director Muller will have the full degree of independence that he needs to conduct the investigation.”
He added, “I’m not going to follow any order unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders. Under the regulation, Special Counsel Mueller may be fired only for good cause, and I am required to put that cause in writing. That’s what I would do. If there were good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.”
But both Rosenstein and Sessions serve at the pleasure of the president, and if Rosenstein refused to fire Mueller, in theory, Trump could appoint someone to Rosenstein’s job who would do his bidding, just as Nixon did after the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” where Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork) carried out Nixon’s wishes.
Ruddy issued a terse response directed at Spicer, but also admitted he didn’t speak to Trump personally about this.
“Spicer issued a bizarre late night press release that a) doesn’t deny my claim the President is considering firing Mueller and b) says I didn’t speak to the President about the matter — when I never claimed to have done so,” Ruddy told Politico Playbook and others in an email. “Memo to Sean: focus your efforts on exposing the flim-flam Russian allegations against POTUS and highlighting his remarkable achievements! Don’t waste time trying to undermine one of your few allies.”
The president himself got in on the act this morning, tweeting about “fake news” and “phony sources”:
But Ruddy continued to double, triple and quadruple down Tuesday morning.
On CSPAN: “I have some good sources in the administration. I think it’s an accurate statement.”
On CNN to anchor Chris Cuomo: “I think it is a consideration the president has had, because Mueller is illegitimate as special counsel. Chris, remember there is no evidence of wrongdoing; there’s no evidence of collusion; there’s no evidence of obstruction. … The basis of his investigation is flim-flam.”
CNN also reported, per an administration source, “No one is recommending that,” but it “hasn’t been ruled out.”
So what’s going on here? A couple things:
1. There has been a right-wing effort to delegitimize Mueller.
See, for example, Newt Gingrich’s changed tone.
From a conservative radio talk show: “I think Congress should now intervene and they should abolish the independent counsel, because Comey makes so clear that it’s the poison fruit of a deliberate manipulation by the FBI director leaking to the New York Times, deliberately set up this particular situation. It’s very sick.”
On Twitter Monday, Gingrich said, “Republicans are delusional if they think” Mueller “is going to be fair” (Gingrich appears to be referring to donations to Democrats by some members of Mueller’s team, as reported on by CNN):
Less than a month ago, he called Mueller a “superb choice,” someone whose “reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.”
And he’s not the only one:
2. Let’s not overthink this: Trump, his allies and his White House also just like to mess with the media and stir confusion among the public.
They don’t mind stirring the pot to distract, deliberately provoke and disrupt.
They have done it before: Think about how it floated the idea of Mueller’s potential conflicts of interest and remember those charges of Democratic ties to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe?
It’s all an effort to manufacture news cycles, create conflicts, distract from other pressing issues and raise questions about someone for a couple days.
When it dies down, in the end, they hope they’ve succeeded in muddying up opponents.