WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump dismissed as “fake news” reports that he ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June but didn’t carry it out after his White House lawyer Don McGahn threatened to resign if he did.
Asked as he arrived at the site of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about the story that first appeared in The New York Times, Trump responded, “Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories.”
Trump’s attempted firing came just weeks after he had fired FBI Director James Comey, prompting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller, but ended when McGahn refused to deliver the order to the Justice Department, the Times reported, citing four unnamed people familiar with the incident. Other news organizations confirmed the report.
In July, attorney Ty Cobb took over as Trump’s chief attorney for the Mueller probe, and changed the White House approach from combative to cooperative. Cobb told the Times, “We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.”
The story broke as Mueller moves closer to interviewing Trump in his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign or transition team colluded with Russia.
The president on Wednesday told reporters in an impromptu meeting that he would gladly testify under oath, depending on his lawyers’ advice. A White House official said afterward that Trump did not mean he was volunteering to testify.
To justify the firing, the Times reported, Trump said Mueller had conflicts of interest, including a dispute over fees at a Trump golf club; working at a law firm representing Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner; and interviewing with Trump to be FBI director again.
Trump friend Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative NewsMax media, mentioned those conflicts on PBS News Hour on June 12, and, speaking of Trump, said, “I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he’s weighing that option.”
Democrats reacted with alarm, and demanded Congress pass a law to protect the special counsel. Republicans downplayed the report.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) on MSNBC said the Judiciary Committee should look into whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice, saying his demand to fire Mueller is just one in a series of attempts he has made to squelch the investigations of him and his campaign.
Trump has the authority to fire Mueller, most lawyers said. Trump’s attorney John Dowd said in December the president cannot obstruct justice “because he is the chief law enforcement officer” under Article II of the Constitution and has the right “to express his view of any case.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Trump has crossed a “red line” if the report is true.
“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.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and its probe of Russia and Trump, said if Trump fired Mueller it “would touch off a constitutional crisis which would imperil this Presidency and do grave damage to our nation.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said, “That is a line he should not cross.”
But Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a House Intelligence panel member, said, “To me it doesn’t matter either way. He had the right to fire him but didn’t.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said that even if true, “it still doesn’t appear to be much of a story” because Trump didn’t fire Mueller and the White House is cooperating with the probe.
With Robert Brodsky