The Flynn plea makes it difficult for Trump to can the special counsel without inviting charges of a cover-up and sparking a constitutional crisis.
The Dec. 1 plea deal struck with President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, marked a big step forward in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. It may also have provided some protection for Mueller against being fired by the president—and helped ensure that his probe will continue, even if one day he’s not leading it.
Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal agents about his communications with the Russian ambassador last December. Given the other potential crimes that Flynn may have committed, including his failure to disclose that he was being paid millions of dollars by a Turkish company while serving as a top official in the White House, the relatively light charge signaled to many that Flynn had something significant worth sharing.
As Mueller’s probe has gotten closer to Trump’s inner orbit, speculation has risen over whether Trump might find a way to shut it down. The Flynn deal may make that harder. For one thing, it shows that Mueller is making progress. “Any rational prosecutor would realize that in this political environment, laying down a few markers would be a good way of fending off criticism that the prosecutors are burning through money and not accomplishing anything,” says Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor now at Duke Law School.
The Flynn plea also makes it difficult for Trump to fire Mueller without inviting accusations of a cover-up and sparking a constitutional crisis, says Michael Weinstein, a former Department of Justice prosecutor now at the law firm Cole Schotz. “There would be a groundswell, it would look so objectionable, like the Saturday Night Massacre with Nixon,” Weinstein says, referring to President Richard Nixon’s attempt to derail the Watergate investigation in 1973 by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox.