First the New York Times, then the Washington Post and then NBC News reported this big bombshell Thursday night: President Trump wanted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller back in June 2017 — but then backed off.
Trump, in Switzerland, responded to last night’s news: “Fake news folks, fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories.”
The story is simple:
President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.
The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel. Mr. Mueller learned about the episode in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice.
Amid the first wave of news media reports that Mr. Mueller was examining a possible obstruction case, the president began to argue that Mr. Mueller had three conflicts of interest that disqualified him from overseeing the investigation, two of the people said.
First, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., had prompted Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I. director at the time, to resign his membership. The president also said Mr. Mueller could not be impartial because he had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Finally, the president said, Mr. Mueller had been interviewed to return as the F.B.I. director the day before he was appointed special counsel in May.
After receiving the president’s order to fire Mr. Mueller, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead, the people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation.
Mr. McGahn disagreed with the president’s case and told senior White House officials that firing Mr. Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. McGahn also told White House officials that Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own. The president then backed off.
We should point out, as many have, that this piece of news is in direct — DIRECT — opposition to what has been said by many Trump surrogates (Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway), and Trump himself. They not only say that Trump “is not considering” firing Mueller, but they say he “never has”.
We should also point out that McGahn is no hero here. He did this to protect Trump, not Mueller. But it is unsettling that in America, the rule of law now rests on the President’s top staffers defying his direct orders.
What does this mean? Some, like Greg Sargant, thinks this goes to intent to commit obstruction of justice:
[T]he Times reports two other crucial details: First, that the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, worried that firing Mueller “would incite more questions about whether the White House was trying to obstruct the Russia investigation.” Second, that Trump has “wavered for months” about firing Mueller and that this is an “omnipresent concern” among people around Trump, meaning it is a concern right now.
This means Trump was very likely informed by his lawyer that firing Mueller would make him more legally vulnerable to the charge that he obstructed justice in his other previous efforts to impede the investigation into his campaign’s possible conspiracy with Russian sabotage of our election. Yet, having likely been so informed, Trump still continues to mull firing him.
The question of whether Trump obstructed justice turns on whether he acted with corrupt intent in trying to impede the investigation. Former prosecutor Renato Mariotti told me in an interview today that those additional facts in the Times piece could help Mueller try to establish that intent.
“It’s hard to conceive of McGahn not having a conversation with Trump regarding the potential legal consequences of firing Mueller,” Mariotti said. The fact that Trump continues to consider that route may mean he continues to bring it up with the people around him. Indeed, CNN recently reported that Trump continues to rage in private about the probe and that his lawyers have talked him down by telling him he’ll be cleared soon. Thus, any more recent conversations about whether to fire Mueller could be of interest, Mariotti said.
Well, sure. But intent to obstruct justice is not obstruction of justice. Ranting about it doesn’t make it so. The actual obstruction of justice count (that we know of) is the firing of James Comey, and we KNOW Trump’s intent, because HE SAID WHAT IT WAS ON TV. I don’t think this adds much to the case, to be honest.
But I think it is relevant in that it shows just the thinking of Trump just one month after firing Comey, and how he apparently did not learn from that fallout. When you look back at the headlines and news from last June, it was pretty clear many thought Mueller was in possible danger.
- June 12: “I think [Trump’s] considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he’s weighing that option,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of the conservative news outlet Newsmax, said on PBS.
- June 13: The New York Times: “[T]he president soon began entertaining the idea of firing Mr. Mueller even as his staff tried to discourage him from something they believed would turn a bad situation into a catastrophe, according to several people with direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s interactions. A longtime friend, Christopher Ruddy, surfaced the president’s thinking in a television interview Monday night, setting off a frenzied day of speculation that he would go through with it. For now, the staff has prevailed.”
- June 13: The headline in First Read: “Why Is Trump Acting So Spooked Over the Russia Investigation?”
So the question becomes: Why has this story reappeared? Conservative Bill Kristol has a theory: Some White House officials, including counsel Don McGahn, believe Trump might try again to fire Mueller — and want to send a warning. “[I]t’s also true that unless the story came out now by accident, the sources (McGahn and allies) are probably worried Trump is about to try again to fire Mueller, and wanted to stir up a preemptive pushback,” Kristol tweeted.
On NPR this morning, conservative writer Noah Rothman speculated that McGahn might be headed out the door — and that people in his orbit wanted to remind Republicans and the public. “If Mr. McGahn is preparing to make an exit, then Republicans need to have a strategy to insulate the president from his own worst instincts.”
Regardless of why this story has once again resurfaced, here is what we do know:
- Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey for his loyaltyin January 2017: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
- Trump asked Comey to let go of the Michael Flynn investigation a month later: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” the president said, per a memo Comey wrote about the meeting. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
- Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017 and told NBC’s Lester Holt two days later it had to do with the Russia investigation: “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”
- Trump fumed about Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation – and White House officials tried to talk him out of that recusal: “Donald Trump’s counsel and multiple other White House officials tried to talk Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of recusing himself from the Russia investigation, a senior U.S. official told NBC News, amid reports the effort was orchestrated by Trump himself.”
- Trump wanted to fire Mueller: “President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive,” the New York Times wrote.
All of this behavior only makes sense if the president was fearful of the Russia investigation. And he was, I believe. Consider the context, given the headlines of the time:
- June 1: NBC News: “The Trump administration was gearing up to lift sanctions on Russia when the president took office, but career diplomats ginned up pressure in Congress to block the move, two senior former State Department officials told NBC News.”
- June 6: President Trump was frustrated with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, NBC’s Kristen Welker reported.
- June 6: “The nation’s top intelligence official [Dan Coats] told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe,” per the Washington Post.
- June 8: Comey testified on Capitol Hill that Mueller could very well be looking at obstruction of justice relating to the Michael Flynn case. “I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to try to understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.”
- June 14: The Washington Post: The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice”
- June 14: The Wall Street Journal: “President Donald Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey is now a subject of the federal probe being headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, which has expanded to include whether the president obstructed justice.”
The Post reports that Democrats are responding to the news by renewing their call for legislation to protect Mueller, should Trump try to remove him:
Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) … said in a statement that “firing the Special Counsel is a red line that the President cannot cross … all members of Congress, from both parties, have a responsibility to our Constitution and to our country to make that clear immediately.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) … described Trump’s attempt to oust Mueller as “remarkable and stunning … it shows the need immediately to protect the special counsel.”
Don’t count on Republicans doing anything along those lines.
BONUS: As the other cable news networks were discussing this story, Sean Hannity tried to pass it off as a distraction, only to get self-owned a few minutes later and provide his OWN distraction:
And Trump’s advisers, Fox & Friends, did a “who cares”?
Fox & Friends on Trump trying to fire Mueller: "Well, the president says it's fake news, that happened last June, it's something we have to tell you about because it's a headline on the NY Times. What do you think about that? Do you even care?" pic.twitter.com/4nPB5sv6Fs
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 26, 2018
FURTHER THOUGHTS ON “WHY NOW?”
(1) This is a subtle shot across Trump’s bow from his staff, saying not to fire Mueller
(2) This is a trial balloon to see how public would react IF Trump decided to fire Mueller