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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Why Donald Trump Would Regret Firing Robert Mueller

The inquiry would go on anyway, and voters would trust the president even less.
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By

Karl Rove

They came like rapid-fire rifle shots. On Friday, former national security adviser Mike Flynn copped a deal, pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI and promising to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in return for avoiding more-serious charges.

Then on Saturday, President Trump sent his most ill-advised tweet yet, saying he knew all along that Mr. Flynn had lied to the FBI. This was a change from the president’s previous explanation for ousting Mr. Flynn—namely, that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

This was followed Monday by news that Mr. Mueller had removed a top FBI investigator, Peter Strzok, from the probe last summer after Mr. Strzok exchanged anti-Trump texts with his mistress, an FBI lawyer. Mr. Strzok has been demoted to human resources.

On Tuesday, news broke that Mr. Mueller had recently demanded that Deutsche Bank turn over records of its dealings with people affiliated with Mr. Trump, though apparently this doesn’t involve the president or his family. In July the president indicated that it would cross a red line if the investigation turned to his personal finances. But he refused to declare then that he would fire Mr. Mueller in that event, saying, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” How will Mr. Trump react if it does?

The president loathes Mr. Mueller’s investigation. He feels abused and mistreated. Since he lashes out when he feels under attack, Mr. Trump may be thinking anew about firing Mr. Mueller. His hard-core supporters and conservative commentators are already pushing for it.

Memo to the president: Firing Mr. Mueller would be a terrible idea. Already, 49% of Americans believe “Mr. Trump himself committed a crime,” according to a November poll by the Washington Post and ABC News. Firing the special counsel would only make Mr. Trump look as if he has something to hide. Firing him would put Mr. Trump’s already pitiful approval rating—about 39% in the Real Clear Politics average—in the gutter, never to recover.

Even if the president fired Mr. Mueller, there would still be enormous pressure to continue the inquiry. Even if the Justice Department refused to name a new special counsel, the investigation and its consequences would not stop. They would move to other venues, namely Congress and the campaign trail.

Congressional Democrats would pursue the matter with every trick they could dream up, including subpoenas, hearings and lawsuits. The issue would dominate the midterm elections, with Democrats aggressively on the offense and Republicans unable to explain why Americans don’t have a right to know.

Democrats would almost certainly win back Congress and wipe out Republican candidates for state and local offices, too. Mr. Trump may not care about the GOP, but he should care about his place in history. A presidency crippled by scandal so early would be unprecedented.

If Mr. Trump has done nothing wrong—and so far there has been no evidence of collusion with the Russians—then he has nothing to fear. Mr. Mueller has indicted only people who created problems for themselves. Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were allegedly caught up by shenanigans in Ukraine and trying to bring their ill-gotten gains home without paying taxes. George Papadopoulos and Mike Flynn lied to the FBI.

The president should wall off the investigation and focus on his Oval Office duties. He should pay the legal costs for staff caught up in the inquiry or allow them to set up legal-defense funds. Most important, he should calmly express confidence in the outcome. Raging against the probe only deepens the belief that he’s guilty of something, while also burying any good news about his policy victories.

If Mr. Mueller wants Americans to trust his ultimate findings, he faces his own challenges. He must conduct himself in a way that builds greater public confidence. Firing Mr. Strzok was critical, but his staff of lawyers has too many politically active Democrats. He has irritated Congress by withholding documents. He must overcome the deep distrust of the FBI created by James Comey’s dramatic non-indictment of Hillary Clinton last year.

Still, the next move is the president’s. Mr. Trump has shown himself to be impulsive and vindictive, often punching down at targets better ignored. But if he fires Mr. Mueller, he would ignite a political conflagration that would consume him, those around him, and his entire presidency.

Don’t do it, Mr. President. If you do, you’ll regret it more than you regret anything else in your life.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley ” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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