Democratic lawmakers see a “desperate” Donald Trump lashing out at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Republicans are split, with some defending a frustrated president and others warning him to calm down.
Members of Trump’s own party had little desire to spotlight the Monday evening rant in which he slammed the Mueller-led Justice Department probe into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible collusion with his campaign.
Their tight-lippedness came after the president characterized a federal raid authorized by a search warrant as a burglary, calling it a “new level of unfairness,” before talking openly about firing Mueller.
Democratic members, however, were eager to talk about Trump’s remarkable 10-minute vent session, which unfolded in the Cabinet room as his top national security officials looked on. Some said the scene was reminiscent of the behavior of former President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate investigation that eventually forced him to resign.
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Other Democrats wondered whether Trump has the mental makeup to set aside his deep emotional reactions to all things Mueller-related and focus on checking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who appears to have used chemical weapons to gas his own people.
“A judge issued a warrant, so for him to say there’s something untoward about that just shows that he’s panicking,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate. “If he does [fire Mueller and others] I think it will be the end of his presidency. I think it’ll be just like when Nixon fired Cox. He shouldn’t do it, and if he does, he will push us into a constitutional crisis.”
Kaine was referring to the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” during which Nixon fired Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus because they refused to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. (Nixon later succeeded in firing Cox, with U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork, as acting Justice Department chief, doing the deed.)
But Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, an early Trump backer, told reporters he viewed the president’s comments differently.
“I think it’s about time we get to the end of an investigation. This looks like an investigation that’s spiraling out of control to me,” he said, quickly ducking into a members-only elevator.
Perdue and others were offering political cover to the GOP president, who appeared enraged Monday evening after the office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was raided by federal agents after information was provided to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York by Mueller’s team. (That office is headed by Geoffrey Berman, a Trump appointee, although Berman has been recused from the case.)
“It’s a disgrace,” Trump fumed, after reportedly spending most of the afternoon watching cable news coverage of the raid. “It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
The president was asked by a reporter why he doesn’t just fire Mueller, given his strong opinions about his Russia probe.
“We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation when you look at what happened,” Trump responded. “And many people have said, ‘You should fire him.’” He went on to say he “did the right thing” by firing then-FBI Director James Comey because “all of the things that he’s done and the lies.” (Trump has admitted halting the Russia probe was on his mind as he thought about firing his first FBI boss.)
He was back at it on Tuesday morning, firing off two tweets slamming the Monday raid and Mueller’s probe.
“Attorney-client privilege is dead!” he tweeted. “A total witch hunt!!!” he added.
Attorney–client privilege is dead!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2018
A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2018
Democratic Armed Services members Kaine and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii said they are concerned, as she put it, that Trump has “shown very little ability to focus on anything much else” just as his administration is planning possible military action in Syria.
Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Senate Judiciary Committee member and former state attorney general, said Trump’s comments “shows a feeling of threat that seems unprecedented — he seems to be completely obsessed [and] unhinged about it.”
“He’s criticized all the guys in the raid, but they’re all his guys,” he said, also pointing to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a Trump appointee and longtime GOP senator), Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein (a Trump appointee) and Berman.
“This investigation is now about more issues than collusion,” Blumenthal said, noting Cohen’s office reportedly was raided in pursuit of possible obstruction of justice, as well as money laundering, election law and wire fraud violations.
Blumenthal sees a “heightened risk to the special counsel,” calling for legislation to protect Mueller. Asked if he is concerned Trump might fire Mueller, Sessions or Rosenstein before Democrats possibly take control of the House and Senate, Blumenthal shot back: “There would be a firestorm,” pointing to comments earlier in the day by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley.
“I have confidence in Mueller. The president ought to have confidence in Mueller,” the Iowa Republican told Fox Business. “I think, to answer your question, it would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller. The less the president said on this whole thing, the better off he would be, the stronger his presidency would be.”
With a slew of nominations — including Cabinet positions at the State and Veterans Affairs departments as well as director of the CIA — looming on the chamber’s docket, Grassley urged Trump to avoid “overburdening Congress with finding a new attorney general.”
Another Judiciary Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told reporters he is “not worried about Mueller getting fired.”
Trump “certainly thinks he has the power” to fire Mueller, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. She declined to comment on whether Trump is considering doing so, but many legal scholars contend only the Justice Department official overseeing a special counsel — in this case, Rosenstein — can terminate that individual.
But some Republicans, like Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, just did not want to talk about Trump’s rant. He declined to comment as he darted into a hearing room while pointing at his wristwatch.