DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The White House seems to be putting Special Counsel Robert Mueller on notice. At yesterday's briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump believes that Mueller has gone too far in his probe of potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian election interference. She also said the president believes he has the power to fire Mueller, which led to this question from CBS News reporter Paula Reid.
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PAULA REID: You said the president believes he has the power to fire Robert Mueller. Because usually most legal experts believe that he would have to order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, and Rosenstein could, of course, refuse.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I know a number of individuals in the legal community and including at the Department of Justice that he has the power to do so.
GREENE: All right. And now The New York Times is reporting that President Trump told advisers that Mueller's investigation had to be shut down. The Times says that came in response to reports of new subpoenas and that the president backed down after getting word that those reports were not accurate. Let's sort all of this through with NPR's Domenico Montanaro from NPR's politics team. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, David.
GREENE: OK. So some disagreement here. The CBS reporter there talking about the process that she understood would be - would have - the president would have to go through to fire Robert Mueller. Is Sarah Sanders saying that there is an easier way to do this, or is everyone talking about the same thing?
MONTANARO: It wasn't clear. I think everyone's probably talking about the same thing. You know, it's been understood that the president doesn't have the authority to fire Mueller directly. You know, the attorney general recused himself from the Russian investigation. That puts Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, in charge. That means that since Mueller reports to Rosenstein and Rosenstein thinks that Mueller is doing a good job that somebody else other than Rosenstein would ostensibly have to then remove Mueller. So that would mean firing Rosenstein and then finding somebody who would want to replace Mueller. The big news, though, was the shift from the White House.
GREENE: The shift in tone, right? I mean, it's not like the press secretary hasn't gotten this question before, but this - the answer sounds different.
MONTANARO: Yeah, I wouldn't focus so much on the process here of what it would take to fire Mueller as much as whether or not the president intends to do so. And what Sarah Sanders had been saying was, quote, "while the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so." She was pushed twice yesterday on that, and she did not take the opportunity to include that caveat again this time, which indicates that the president is at least thinking about it.
GREENE: Thinking about it because he is getting more frustrated with Mueller, perhaps, and if that's the case, why?
MONTANARO: Well, I mean the most obvious thing obviously is the raid from the Mueller team of Michael Cohen's hotel, office and apartment and Cohen was Trump's...
GREENE: I guess it wasn't Mueller's team exactly. He went to the U.S. Attorney's in New York, right?
GREENE: But it was a special case for the special counsel.
MONTANARO: At his behest. And he, you know, this was signed off on personally by Rosenstein. So it's all intertwined. And Cohen is Trump's personal attorney. And in addition to using language of dismissing the investigation from Trump as a witch hunt, he also went so far as to call it a break-in and an attack on our country. Cohen himself though disputed that. He told CNN yesterday that agents were respectful, and he thanked them at the end. But clearly this has rattled President Trump.
GREENE: Haven't Republicans on the Hill been telling the president that they would not accept him ever firing Mueller or at least a good number of them have?
MONTANARO: Well, most of them are very much against firing Mueller. You know, Chuck Grassley, the senator from Iowa who's also the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, yesterday said it would be political suicide for the president to do this. We've been talking about this basically since last June when conversations about this started coming up. But this is a question that they've been, again, thinking about for almost a year.
And at this point, Republicans on Capitol Hill say that they're not moving toward legislation to block a possible firing for two reasons. One, they don't think the president's actually going to do it. And two, they don't want to provoke him. It's a gamble, but they're going to have a chance to talk to the president about it tonight when they meet with him for dinner at the White House.
GREENE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks.
MONTANARO: Yeah, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.