Marco Grob / TIME time cover mueller...
Marco Grob / TIME

The day does not go by when Donald Trump doesn’t hear from Fox News, his medium of choice to tell him how to be in the world, that the FBI and the Department of Justice are out to get him. Trump has been dying to fire Robert Mueller since the beginning and only his lawyer Ty Cobb lying to him about how the investigation is going to wrap up any day now, plus the actions of the relatively sane people around Trump undoubtedly begging him to consider the consequences, have forestalled Trump from doing anything foolish — yet. However, in the past few weeks the topic has been heating up and a constitutional crisis arising from the firing of Robert Mueller may be more a question of when rather than if. American Prospect:

Look for instance at this unhinged rant from Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, in which she says that the FBI and DOJ “need to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired but who need to be taken out in handcuffs. There have been times in our history when corruption and lawlessness were so pervasive, that examples had to be made. This is one of those times.”

She’s hardly alone: Tune in to Fox at any random moment of the day and it’s a good bet you’ll hear someone railing against Mueller and/or the FBI. “I think we now know that the Mueller investigation is illegitimate and corrupt,” said the network’s Greg Jarrett. “Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt,” Newt Gingrich told Laura Ingraham on her Fox show. And no one has called for Mueller’s firing more angrily and repeatedly than Sean Hannity, who refers to the investigators as “Robert Mueller’s partisan extremely biased hyper-partisan attack team.”

The reality of Robert Mueller is that he’s a Republican who was appointed by a Republican president and who has diligently and methodically been carrying out the task with which he has been entrusted. If there is a hyper-partisan attack team in this scenario, it is clearly Fox News. Be that as it may, Fox News may want Mueller’s firing to happen, they may be advocating like mad for it, and they are, but actually carrying it out will be a completely different kettle of fish. It’s going to be much harder to get rid of Mueller than it was Comey.  Vox:

The special counsel procedures were established by a Justice Department regulation, and the authors of this regulation tried to make it deliberately difficult for the special counsel to be fired. They wrote that only the attorney general can fire him or her, and that even then, there would have to be a good reason — that it could only be done for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.”

In Mueller’s case, there’s another twist here. Due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from all campaign-related investigations, Mueller is not reporting to Sessions, but instead to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. So according to the regulation, it would have to be Rosenstein who fires Mueller.

Rosenstein confirmed in sworn congressional testimony back in June that he interpreted the special counsel regulation to mean that he is the only person in government with authority over Mueller’s hiring and potential firing — that is, not Trump and not Sessions. Furthermore, he said that he would only fire Mueller for “good cause,” and would refuse to carry out an order to fire him if good cause were not established.

The obvious comparison is to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre wherein he finally found somebody who was willing to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. However, that firing did not halt the Watergate investigation. Backlash was immediate and profound from both the public and leadership of both parties. Likely history would repeat itself in that regard.

What happens then? When Trump moves to obstruct justice by firing a special counsel already investigating him for obstruction of justice, will members of his party in Congress find the courage to tell him that he can’t?

A few may. But I’d wager that most Republicans will convince themselves that Mueller really is out of control and has to be shut down. They’ll be on TV insisting that Trump was right to do what he did, and he’ll be watching.

This is the most up in the air question in Washington today. It eclipses considerations of whether the tax bill will be rewritten to any sane proportions and even considerations of what will happen if Roy Moore is elected to the Senate. This is the wild card. It’s anybody’s guess how long Trump’s aides can hold Trump back from doing something incredibly stupid. Perhaps it’s best to trust historical precedent and realize that it did nothing to help Nixon, it only hastened his inevitable departure. Perhaps that’s what will happen here as well. If you’re good with tea leaves or a crystal ball, now would be the time to pull them out.

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