WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump sought the firing of Robert Mueller last June, shortly after the special counsel took over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he backed off only after White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign over the move.
The extraordinary showdown was confirmed by two people familiar with the episode, which was first reported by The New York Times.
McGahn did not deliver his resignation threat directly to Trump, but was serious about his threat to leave, according to a person familiar with the episode.
The president’s effort came in the weeks after Mueller’s appointment last May to lead the probe into Trump’s campaign and whether it coordinated with Russian attempts to tilt the election. Mueller was tapped for the role by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and his probe has quickly expanded to include an exploration of whether Trump has attempted to obstruct the ongoing investigation.
The incident could now become part of Mueller’s examination of whether Trump has taken steps to try to stymie the investigation.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, declined to comment. McGahn did not respond to requests for comment.
A White House spokesman referred questions to Ty Cobb, the attorney coordinating the administration’s response to the Russia investigations, who did not respond to requests for comment. John Dowd, an attorney for the president, declined to comment.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation of Russian interference, said in a statement that “firing the Special Counsel is 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.”
Trump was initially calm when Mueller was appointed, surprising White House aides, according to a senior administration official.
But in the weeks that followed, the president spoke with a number of friends and advisers who convinced him that Mueller would dig through his private finances and look beyond questions of collusion with Russians. They warned that the probe could last years and would ruin his first term in office.
At the time, his legal team was urging him to aggressive action against the special counsel and compiling arguments about why he could not be impartial, raising questions about whether Mueller had gotten into a dispute over membership fees at a Trump-owned golf course in northern Virginia.
Trump decided to assert that Mueller had unacceptable conflicts of interest and moved to remove him from his position, according to the people familiar with internal conversations.
In response, McGahn said he would not be at the White House if Trump went through with the move, according to a senior administration official.
The president, in turn, backed off.
Since then, Trump brought in a new legal team that has counseled cooperation with Mueller. He has continued to fume about the investigation, even as his lawyers have publicly pledged to work with the special counsel. On Thursday, one of the president’s attorneys distributed a memo outlining the number of voluntary staff interviews and documents they have produced.