President Donald Trump ordered special counsel Robert Mueller to be fired last year but backed down after the White House’s top attorney threatened to resign, according to a person familiar with the issue.
White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit after Trump pushed the idea of firing Mueller in June, the person said. McGahn argued that firing Mueller would cause deep harm to Trump’s presidency. Trump pushed for Mueller’s firing just days after his appointment to investigate the president’s 2016 campaign for collusion, the source said.
Trump eventually backed down, and McGahn stayed at the White House.
On Friday from Davos, Switzerland, Trump told journalists that reports that he ordered Mueller fired are “fake news, folks. Fake news.” In a statement, Ty Cobb, the White House attorney who is focused on the Russia investigation, said, “We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.”
McGahn, through his attorney Bill Burck, declined comment on Thursday’s news. Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd also declined comment.
Trump’s desire to fire Mueller and McGahn’s threatened resignation was first reported by The New York Times Thursday night.
While Trump has repeatedly hinted at his frustration with the special counsel investigation, arguing there is zero evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia, he has stopped short of publicly calling for his firing. At an impromptu press conference on Wednesday, Trump said he was “looking forward” to speaking to Mueller’s team.
The revelation comes as Mueller’s investigation appears to have intensified: Members of his special counsel staff in December finished an initial round of interviews with all of Trump’s senior White House staff and Trump said that he himself may speak to Mueller’s team in the next “two to three weeks.”
Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, declined to comment on the news report, saying the office was declining to comment on anything about the investigation.
There were plenty of hints about Trump’s anger at Mueller early last summer.
James Comey, who Trump fired as FBI Director, testified June 8 before the Senate intelligence committee about the circumstances around his dismissal and whether Trump was obstructing justice.
A week later, after reports that Mueller was investigating a possible obstruction case, Trump tweeted that the probe was “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
The same day, according to media reports, Mueller formally asked for interviews with three top U.S. intelligence officials about whether Trump had asked them for help.
In mid-June, Chris Ruddy, a close Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member, said after a visit to the White House that he’d overheard discussion about the president considering firing Mueller.
“It could trigger something well beyond anything they ever imagined,” he told POLITICO at the time. Later that day, Ruddy told PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff that Trump was “considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.”
Ruddy added during the interview he thought it would be “a very significant mistake” to oust Mueller. He noted Mueller had interviewed with Trump to succeed Comey as FBI director, though the president later went on to appoint former Justice Department official Chris Wray to the job.
The special counsel’s office declined to comment in June about the president’s interview with Mueller. But sources familiar with the issue pointed out that had Trump made the move to nominate Mueller then Congress would have needed to override a 2011 law signed by President Barack Obama that prohibited him from serving an additional term.
Lawyers involved with Mueller’s investigation viewed the report as a potentially ominous sign.
“It’s one more brick in the wall,” said a Washington lawyer representing another senior Trump aide in the Russia probe who added that the most interesting aspect of the Trump-Mueller story to him was that “people are leaking this shit.”
“That is a sign to me people perceive this ship has sprung a leak and it’s time to make themselves look good,” the attorney said. “To some extent I think the fact of the leaking is almost the most significant, that we’ve reached an inflection point where people at the center of things feel the need to redeem themselves at the expense of the president.”
Democrats responded to the report by repeating what they have said since Mueller’s appointment — that firing him would cross a line.
U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has investigated Russian collusion, said that firing Mueller would be a “red line that the President cannot cross.”
“Any attempt to remove the Special Counsel, pardon key witnesses, or otherwise interfere in the investigation, would be a gross abuse of power, and all members of Congress, from both parties, have a responsibility to our Constitution and to our country to make that clear immediately.”
Mueller was appointed special counsel in mid-May 2017 to lead an investigation into Russian election interference following a series of chaotic events, including the president’s abrupt decision days earlier to fire Comey. His appointment also came after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation after previously unreported meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S., surfaced.
Trump has said previously that he has no intention of firing Mueller. He has repeatedly criticized the Russia investigation and dismissed any talk of collusion.
Mueller in October brought criminal charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, on multiple counts, including money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent. Both men are pleading not guilty.
The special counsel also has obtained guilty pleas from former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI about their contact with Russian officials.