Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): There’s a lot going on, including tons of speculation about who might get the boot from President Trump next. On Tuesday night, in fact, The New York Times reported that Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller as recently as December. At about the same time as The Times story went online, CNN reported that Trump is thinking about booting Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller.
But rather than guess at the likelihood of certain firings or venture into subjects we don’t have much expertise in, let’s focus on … politics! Specifically, what would the political repercussions be if Trump fired ____________?
I’ll fill in the blank, and we’ll discuss them one by one. Here’s the scale you have to rate each hypothetical firing on:
- ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — I’m not sure
- 😑 — meh, not a big deal
- 🔥 — 1-alarm fire
- 🔥🔥 — 2-alarm fire
- 🔥🔥🔥 — 3-alarm fire
- 🔥🔥🔥🔥 — 4-alarm fire, or an all-out shitshow
Perry and Nate — it’s just us three today, by the way — you got all that?
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Sure.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): “I’m not sure” feels like a cop-out, Micah — of the sort you usually try to make us avoid.
micah: OK, let’s nix “I’m not sure” as an option.
Also, the idea with the four-alarm fire — the all-out shitshow — is that it’s not just an isolated controversy, however big or important, but that it spreads. Anyway, revised scale:
- 😑 — meh, not a big deal
- 🔥 — 1-alarm fire
- 🔥🔥 — 2-alarm fire
- 🔥🔥🔥 — 3-alarm fire
- 🔥🔥🔥🔥 — 4-alarm fire, or an all-out shitshow
First up: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who’s in the midst of a swirl of scandals.
perry: Meh, not a big deal.
natesilver: Yeah, I’d go with “meh” on that one.
A normal administration would fire Pruitt, no question. So it’s almost like I wanna give dumpster-fire points if Trump keeps Pruitt.
perry: Yeah, firing someone because they are in a scandal is not unusual. And Pruitt’s scandals are not Trump/Russia-related or connected to the administration more broadly. Also, I assume that whoever replaced Pruitt would have similar policy views.
micah: Yeah, I think I agree with all that. I guess my only pushback would be that firing Pruitt helps cement the impression that the Trump administration has an ethics/corruption problem, which could have midterm consequences. But maybe that’s true whether Trump boots Pruitt or not.
Well, IDK, let me take a step back: Do you all think the stink of corruption — if it sticks — will/would have a midterm effect? Like, could it make a blue 🌊 worse?
natesilver: I mean, as I said on this week’s podcast, it could discourage Republican turnout if the conservative base feels like Trump hasn’t “drained the swamp.” That’s obviously very speculative, and it’s hard to prove or disprove. But it isn’t totally crazy.
I just think anything Pruitt-related is of a lesser order of magnitude than the other cases we’ll discuss.
perry: I don’t think corruption at the Cabinet-level matters for the midterms. The general Trump-related corruption — staying at his own properties, whatever is going on with Jared Kushner — is part of why liberals hate Trump. But Ben Carson, Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, I’m not sure they matter a ton, if not for their corruption to some extent being allowed/enabled by Trump.
micah: OK, next up: John Kelly, chief of staff.
perry: Two dumpsters
micah: you mean 🔥🔥?
natesilver: It’s confusing, Perry.
I’m going with one 🔥
Or a 1-alarm fire.
It’s clear — as Perry wrote in February — that Kelly never really tamed Trump anyway, and we probably shouldn’t have expected otherwise.
It also seems clear that he’s been pretty marginalized in recent weeks. So I think this would have been a big deal six or eight weeks ago, but a lot of it is “priced in” now.
perry: So the case for 🔥🔥 …
Firing the chief of staff is disruptive. Firing a chief of staff who is a general and is, in theory, aligned with another general in the Cabinet (Defense Secretary James Mattis) matters to foreign policy. Mattis and Kelly combined could moderate how Trump and the newly installed national security adviser, John Bolton, handle Iran or North Korea or Syria. And, finally, reports have surfaced that Trump is considering not having a chief of staff at all if Kelly leaves. If that happens, it’s possible that the level of chaos will remain the same (high). But having no chief of staff also could lead to even more fighting among staffers for influence, and that could raise the level of chaos slightly.
micah: Also, people forced out of the administration have tended to start talking to the press. I wonder what sorts of things we might learn if Kelly is forced out.
perry: So are you one or two or higher?
micah: I think I’m 🔥 — but I wonder if Nate is falling into some sort of fire-alarm inflation because of the rest of the names on our list.
Whatever … you know what I mean.
natesilver: I just think it’s hard to rate things that are “ordinary” shitshows on the same scale as things that could spark constitutional crises.
So maybe, yeah, I am being conservative. But I also think a lot of the consequences that people would associate with Trump firing Kelly have already happened. After a relatively calm start to 2018, the last month or two have been the most chaotic time in the Trump administration, and also Trump has been acting out on his impulses more and more.
perry: That’s true. The only thing I’m really talking about is some pre-emptive strike against North Korea, which I suspect Kelly would be against.
But I don’t know that Kelly would be opposed to such a strike, and it’s not even clear that Kelly could stop that if he is there as chief of staff.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney/fixer. (No relation.)
natesilver: Has he been in the news lately?
I guess I’d go with 🔥🔥 because if he were to flip, that’d be very bad news for Trump.
perry: It would make sense for Trump to distance himself from Cohen — a totally logical political move. But, yes, that would be potentially dangerous to Trump — although, if Trump fires Cohen but Cohen thinks a pardon is possible, that changes the dynamics too.
This is a hard one, and I don’t think we have much evidence that Trump is considering cutting ties with Cohen.
natesilver: I guess what I’m asking is whether distancing himself is really possible … it’s hard to throw your fixer under the bus.
micah: Maybe it’s a bigger deal if Trump doesn’t distance himself from Cohen?
perry: I felt like Trump on Thursday tried to distance himself a bit from the Cohen stuff. But on Monday, Trump strongly defended Cohen.
Trump has to stick to, “I didn’t know about the payments,” which has to mean, “Cohen and I don’t talk about stuff like that.”
natesilver: Yeah, I’m a bit of a minimizer and I think a lot of “BOMBSHELL!!!” reports can be overblown. I don’t think this one is at all, though.
micah: Speaking of …
Attorney General Jeff Sessions!
perry: Four fires or whatever. Really big.
I’m saving my four-fire rating for you-know-who.
But the Sessions firing carries all sorts of risks for Trump. It could spark a confrontation with his base. And it could yield a big fight in Congress over whoever he wanted to replace Sessions.
perry: But less big than, say, last year. Now, the Fox News/House Freedom Caucus part of the conservative base has been given a reason that Sessions should go: He is blocking (or at least not authorizing) a new special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton controversies. Sessions, I suspect, is no longer beloved by the Fox News base. The ground has been laid for Trump to claim that the firing is not about Russia and for conservatives to hear and accept that. Senate Republicans (Sessions’s former colleagues) were strongly defending Sessions last year, amid rumors that Trump would dump the attorney general. I don’t see a similar effort happening now.
natesilver: That’s true. The ground has been softened a lot over the past year. At the same time, Trump has mostly fired the (((globalists))) so far, and this would be really different.
micah: OK … Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general
I guess the obvious question is whether this is a precursor to firing Mueller, though.
perry: This is the highest level, too, but slightly more important than Sessions. It would be purging the person who is, in reality, leading the Russia investigation, since he appointed Mueller and signs off on his work. Like Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, this would mean that Trump was firing someone who was investigating him. The media condemnation would be very harsh.
micah: So you’re going 🔥🔥🔥🔥, Perry?
That said, the conservative media has turned Rosenstein into a total villain, so I think he would get very little support there. Fox News would defend the move.
natesilver: Would firing Rosenstein be enough for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump?
perry: I don’t think for this Congress. But, yes, for the Democratic House if there is one after the November elections.
micah: Is there a world in which Trump fires Rosenstein but not Mueller?
perry: I think that’s possible, yes. The Cohen raid, according to The New York Times, was approved by Rosenstein, not Mueller.
micah: Yeah, that’s basically what the CNN story imagines: Fire Rosenstein to rein in Mueller. Like, let’s say he fires Rosenstein and then makes a big speech about letting Mueller finish? Because that could contain the 🔥 to some extent?
natesilver: Sure, especially if he holds Rosenstein responsible for crossing the “red line.”
I don’t think he’s going to make that speech, though, Micah.
But he could pitch it as an isolated thing.
natesilver: This is like one of those “what if Steph Curry was 7-foot-1 and retained all of his other basketball skills” questions.
perry: And if the new person who is overseeing Mueller tries to rein in the investigation in any way, that becomes a huge story.
But I think Rosenstein being fired by Trump makes the most sense as we go through these scenarios.
micah: Well, that’s the key question, Perry: Who replaces Rosenstein? Right?
perry: Trump can claim that he didn’t fire Mueller while trying to limit Mueller’s investigation.
natesilver: I guess my view is that firing Rosenstein makes impeachment proceedings likely under a Democratic House. Whereas firing Mueller makes impeachment proceedings inevitable under a Democratic House and possible even under a GOP House.
perry: I agree.
micah: Yeah, if you’re Trump and you want to shut down the investigation, firing Rosenstein is much smarter than firing Mueller.
perry: But as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux has written, lots of people are involved in this investigation. I don’t think firing Rosenstein is likely to stop it.
Because Sessions recused himself, Solicitor General Noel Francisco would take over oversight of the investigation if Rosenstein left and were not replaced. (People in Washington are assuming that because Francisco, Rosenstein and Sessions recently went to dinner together at a restaurant where they were guaranteed to be seen, they are aligned on all of the Russia issues. I have no idea: I didn’t know what Francisco looked like until Tuesday.)
micah: Well, yeah — Trump in all likelihood can’t stop the investigation.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t try.
OK, let’s add Mueller in here as we wrap up.
perry: So I guess I view the firing of Sessions, Rosenstein or Mueller all as crises. I don’t want to use the term “constitutional” crises, because I think these are more rule of law/governance/norms crises. But I agree that Mueller is the worst.
I’m not predicting that the GOP Congress would move to impeach Trump. But I think a Democratic House would feel as if they had to.
And firing Mueller would, I think, make it more likely that we have a Democratic House.
natesilver: The GOP Congress seems spectacularly unprepared for the world in which Trump fires Mueller.
Literally, their answer — for the most part — to the question of what happens if Trump fires Mueller has been, “Well, we hope he doesn’t.”
micah: Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, was pushing to pass some pre-emptive legislation to protect Mueller in the wake of this week’s news.
perry: The basic calculation of congressional Republicans seems to be: The party base will be mad if they make any pro-Mueller move, since that will be interpreted as anti-Trump, so they can’t do that. But I think congressional Republicans are assuming that Trump doesn’t have the guts to fire Mueller.
natesilver: That’s a bold prediction, Perry. And if Trump reads it, maybe Mueller goes bye-bye!
perry: I’m trying to explain what Republicans in Congress seem to be thinking. Congressional Republicans may be making the wrong calculation, but I understand their thinking. It’s easier for Republicans to hope that Trump doesn’t fire Mueller than to pass a bill to bar him from doing it that Trump either won’t sign or will sign while complaining about it.
I’m not predicting this.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he won’t bring a bill to protect Mueller to the floor.
natesilver: Ahh, got it.
Yeah, I think their default move would be to (i) make some moves to restore or replace Mueller and (ii) slow-walk the question of impeachment until the midterms.
But, as I’ve written before in this space, I think the world becomes a very unpredictable place if Mueller is fired.
perry: But firing Mueller, I think we agree, is a move that reshapes the Trump presidency and Washington in a way the firings of Sessions or Rosenstein might not.
Democrats on the Hill are leery about being pro-impeachment right now. But if Mueller is fired, liberal activists all over the country will demand impeachment, and I think elected Democrats will have no choice but to take that position too.
micah: Yeah, this conversation has sort of crystallized for me the extent to which Trump firing Rosenstein is more likely than Trump firing Mueller.
It has some of the same effects but much less risk (although still a ton of risk).
natesilver: Narrator voice: Trump fired Mueller three minutes after we published this chat.
micah: Here are the results (with my ratings added in):
|If ____ were fired||Nate||Perry||Micah|
I’ve come out of this chat more convinced that firing Rosenstein is just as bad as firing Mueller. (And I added a “FOUR 💩!!” ultra level of craziness rating.)
perry: My last thought, to underscore: I think the Cohen raid has ratcheted up the potential for Trump to fire one of the key figures in or around the Russia investigation. I would rank Rosenstein, Sessions and Mueller, in that order, in terms of who might be fired. Any one of those would be a crisis-creating move. And I honestly could see him firing any one of them.
micah: What if he fired all three!?!?!?
perry: Let’s not think about that.
natesilver: Currently, betting markets say there’s a 33 percent chance that Trump fails to finish his term. I don’t know whether that’s too high or too low. Perhaps too high, I guess. What I do think we can say pretty confidently is that the chance of his failing to finish his term is higher than it was six months ago. He’s taking on much higher-stakes confrontations. Most of the adults in the room are gone. Mueller and Rosenstein are being pretty darned aggressive. There’s a lot of risk to the president.