President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but backed down when the White House counsel threatened to quit over the demand, the New York Times reported Thursday.
After receiving the order to fire Mueller, Don McGahn, the White House counsel, refused to ask the Justice Department to terminate the special counsel and threatened to resign, the newspaper reported. McGahn told senior officials he disagreed with Trump's decision, believing that firing Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on the presidency, the Times reported.
Trump denied the claims in front of a group of reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday morning, dismissing the report as "fake news".
The revelation marks the first known time the president sought the firing of Mueller, whose team of investigators has been looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump campaign officials. Mueller learned of the president's order in recent months, the Times reported, as investigators interviewed White House officials.
Trump's demand, which was later confirmed by the Washington Post and CNN, came amid reports the special counsel and his investigative team were focusing on possible obstruction of justice by the president. Mueller was assigned as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May, just weeks before Trump reportedly directed McGahn to fire him.
A spokesperson for the special counsel's office declined to comment to BuzzFeed News about the report. White House special counsel Ty Cobb and the president's lead private attorney, John Dowd, also declined to comment. White House officials did not immediately return requests for comment.
Rumors that the president was considering firing Mueller and threatening to ignite a political firestorm were reported in June when Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax and a friend of Trump, told PBS NewsHour, "I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option."
Ruddy had been spotted by reporters leaving the White House that week.
But in August, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told ABC that Trump had not discussed firing the special counsel.
"The president has not even discussed that," she said at the time. "I can tell you as his counselor, he is not discussing that."
Asked repeatedly by reporters last year whether Trump was considering firing Mueller, White House officials, the president's attorneys, and Trump himself denied ever considering the move.
On Aug. 8, Dowd told USA Today that firing the special counsel has "never been on the table, never." Two days later, Trump told reporters in New Jersey that he hadn't "given it any thought."
"No, I'm not dismissing anybody," Trump said. "I mean, I want them to get on with the task."
Then on Dec. 16, Cobb told CNN, "There is no consideration of firing the special counsel." Four days later, Cobb again spoke to reporters, telling the Washington Post that the White House had for months rejected the assertion.
"For five months or more the White House has persistently and emphatically stated there is no consideration of firing the Special Counsel and the White House willingly affirms, yet again, as it has every day this week, there is no consideration being given to the termination of the Special Counsel," he told the Post.
According to the Times report, Trump argued that Mueller had three conflicts of interest that should disqualify him from leading the investigation. They include:
- A previous dispute over membership fees at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.
- Working at a law firm that had previously represented Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.
- Mueller previously interviewing with the FBI to potentially return to lead the agency after the firing of James Comey.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation into Russian meddling in the election, said in a statement Thursday night that firing Mueller would cross a "red line."
"I’ve said it before, and I am saying it again: firing the Special Counsel is a red line that the president cannot cross," Warner said. "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."
Sen. James Lankford, a Republican who also sits on the intelligence committee, told BuzzFeed News Trump has previously expressed his willingness to cooperate with the investigation.
"The White House and the president have said repeatedly, most recently yesterday, that they will comply with the special counsel and investigating committees," he said. "So, I think we should take the White House at their word."
According to the report, Trump also considered firing Rosenstein, the second-in-command at the Justice Department, who had been overseeing the investigation since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general, would have then taken over Rosenstein's responsibilities in the Russia probe.
So far, Mueller's team of investigators have filed charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
Mueller's team has in recent weeks also interviewed members of Trump's inner circle, including McGahn. On Tuesday, the Justice Department confirmed Sessions had also been interviewed by the special counsel's office.
On Wednesday, Trump told reporters he was "looking forward" to talking to Mueller, and suggested he might do so in two or three weeks' time.
"I am looking forward to it, actually," Trump said. "Here is the story: There has been no collusion whatsoever. There is no obstruction whatsoever. And I am looking forward to it."
BuzzFeed News reporter Emma Loop contributed to this report.