Robert Mueller has been appointed special counsel in the investigation into contacts between Russia and the Donald Trump campaign during the 2016 election. This comes a week after FBI Director James Comey was fired by President Donald Trump. So does Trump have the authority to fire Robert Mueller just like he fired James Comey?
Trump could not fire Robert Mueller on his own, but his attorney general does have this authority. If Trump wanted Mueller gone, then, he could simply instruct his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to fire him.
At that point, Sessions would have to decide whether this duty should rest on his shoulders or whether it should be up to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Sessions, after all, has theoretically recused himself from the Russia investigation, and so the decision of whether to fire Mueller should go to Rosenstein.
It would then be up to Rod Rosenstein, the man who hired Mueller in the first place, whether he should comply with the president’s orders and fire the special counsel. While the president could not bypass Rosenstein and fire Mueller himself, he could fire Rosenstein and replace him with a deputy attorney general who will agree to fire Mueller.
In fact, this is precisely what happened under President Richard Nixon in October 1973 in what has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon wanted to fire Archibald Cox, the independent prosecutor who was investigating Watergate. He ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox, but Richardson refused and instead resigned. Nixon then ordered the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork was subsequently sworn in as attorney general, and Bork was finally the one to fire Cox.
President Trump, then, only has the power to order his subordinates to fire Robert Mueller, but if they were to refuse, he could simply replace them with someone who would follow his orders and fire Mueller.
However, Trump firing Robert Mueller would be such an extraordinary turn of events that it would almost certainly lead down the road to impeachment. When Trump fired James Comey, his administration maintained that this was because of Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in 2016. However, firing an independent counsel like Robert Mueller would clearly be an attempt to interfere with the ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.