TIME

THE MUELLER PLAY

President Trump is using the special counsel’s report to roll back post-Watergate limits on executive power
Trump rallies supporters in Green Bay, Wis., on April 27, a little more than a week after the release of the Mueller report

AS PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP WALKED OUT OF THE South Portico of the White House on April 26, a reporter asked him if he had ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller nearly two years ago. In the question, Trump apparently heard an echo of President Richard Nixon’s 1973 firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre and helped pave the way for Nixon’s eventual resignation. “I’m a student of history,” Trump said over the thumping blades of the waiting Marine One helicopter. “I see what you get when you fire people, and it’s not good.”

If Trump is a student of history, though, Mueller’s recently released 448-page final report suggests the President has learned a different lesson from that of his predecessors. Rather than defer to the constraints that Nixon’s downfall imposed on the presidency, Trump has sought to dismantle them. The special counsel found examples of Trump using the power of the presidency to advance his personal political goals and push for criminal inquiries against his enemies. Witnesses detailed nearly a dozen episodes in which Trump tried to limit the scope of the Mueller investigation. And despite Trump’s April 26 denial, his former White House counsel Don McGahn testified that Trump had ordered him to fire Mueller.

Now Trump is using the Mueller report itself to expand the power of the chief executive. Claiming that Mueller exonerated him, Trump and his lawyers are refusing to cooperate with most congressional investigations, even though the special counsel seemed to call for them. More ambitiously, Trump is using the report as a weapon against his 2020 political opponents, raising money off the top-line findings and saying he was the target of an illegal coup, in the hope that the inaccurate

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