President was dissuaded from firing Mueller when counsel threatened to quit rather than carry out order, New York Times reports
Lauren Gambino in Washington
Donald Trump reportedly ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but was persuaded against it after the White House counsel threatened to resign, according to a report in the New York Times.
The Times, citing four people familiar with the matter, said the president ordered the White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election including possible contacts with the Trump campaign. McGahn refused and said he would resign before carrying out the directive.
Trump outlined a case for why he believed Mueller should be fired, citing three conflicts of interest that disqualified him from overseeing the Russia investigations, according to the report.
First, Trump alleged, a dispute over membership fees at Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia led Mueller to resign as a member in 2011. Trump saw another potential conflict because Mueller had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Lastly, Trump said Mueller had been interviewed to return as the FBI director the day before he was appointed special counsel.
Ty Cobb, the president’s lawyer, said in a statement to the Times: “We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.” A spokesman for the special counsel also declined to comment.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion or obstruction.
Senator Mark Warner, the vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, which is conducting its own investigation into Russian interference, warned that firing Mueller was a “red line” 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,” Warner said in a statement responding to the story.
The report follows developments that the special counsel interviewed attorney general Jeff Sessions for several hours last week. Sessions announced in March 2017 that he would recuse himself from any role in it after it was revealed that he had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during the 2016 campaign. The former Alabama senator endorsed Trump in February 2016 and was a key surrogate during the campaign.
It was also reported this week that former FBI director James Comey was interviewed by the special counsel as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling.
Trump fired Comey in May 2017, raising concerns that he tried to obstruct the FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russians. Comey reportedly met last year with the special counsel to answer questions about contemporaneous memos he wrote regarding interactions with the president that concerned him.
In one instance, Comey testified, Trump asked him for loyalty and asked him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser. Comey said he evaded those demands and was soon fired.
Earlier this week, the New York Times- reported that the special counsel was seeking to interview Trump about the president’s decision to fire Flynn and Comey. Mueller’s reported focus on their firings is the latest indication that the special counsel’s team is zeroing in on potential obstruction of justice issues.
Trump on Wednesday told reporters he was “looking forward” to speaking with Mueller, ending months of speculation about whether he would submit to an interview.
“I would love to do it,” Trump told reporters in the room, adding that an interview could occur within two to three weeks.