Old news became new this week as the New York Times reported afresh and with a wealth of new details that President Donald Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in June 2017, just weeks after he was appointed. According to the Times, Mueller learned of the Trump order during interviews with “current and former senior White House officials.”
Trump’s dictat died aborning after White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, refused to go along, insisting that he would quit instead. Firing Mueller would only provoke additional questions about White House obstruction of the Russia investigation, McGahn believed, a potentially fatal blow to Trump’s presidency. “Mr. McGahn also told White House officials that Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own. The president then backed off,” the Times reports, sketching some sort of face-off. As is the case with so many Trump frenzies, this one climbed back into its hole. But there it continued to incubate. In July, the Times reminds us, Trump gave an interview in which he put Mueller on notice that firing might follow if his investigation expanded from the Russia matter to his family’s finances.
The Mueller appointment (by deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein) stands as one of Trump’s grand disappointments. Another is his own decision to make Jeff Sessions his attorney general. Sessions, wrapped up in Russian intrigue himself, recused himself from the Russia investigation, which Trump has called “very unfair to the president.” As the special counsel appears to be closing in on obstruction of justice charges against the president, Trump’s anger doesn’t seem misplaced for once.
Trump nemesis met Trump disappointment last week, the Times reported, as Mueller’s office interviewed Sessions for several hours. Picking the Trump scab, a reporter asked Trump on Tuesday, “Mr. President, are you concerned about what the attorney general told the special counsel?” Convincing nobody, Trump said, “No, I’m not at all concerned. Not at all.”
Buttonholed by reporters in Davos at the end of the week, Trump offered a listless retort to the stories about Mueller's near-sacking: “Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories.” But the Times piece and the Washington Post follow inspired reams of brave talk from Democratic Senators Mark R. Warner and Richard Blumenthal who also serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee that’s looking into Russian election interference. The two all but volunteered to throw their bodies in front of Trump’s killdozer to preserve Mueller’s job security, even though Republicans yawned at proposals to shield the counsel.
Reports of Trump’s desire to sack Mueller first surfaced on June 12, 2017, when Trump friend and Newsmax executive Chris Ruddy went on PBS NewsHour to say the president was “considering” the special counsel’s dismissal. By popular demand, he repeated his assertion the following morning on CNN. The press corps dropped several litters of kittens, and somewhere an enterprising website must have posted a countdown clock timing the Mueller demise. For his revelation, Ruddy was pilloried by then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer, writes the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove this week. But it should come as no surprise that Spicer’s denial was of the non-denial variety, stating only that Ruddy had never spoken to Trump on the issue. Last summer, Trump, his advisor Kellyanne Conway and his lawyer John Dowd all denied that the president was thinking of firing Mueller, as CNN’s Marshall Cohen tweeted this week.
The dismissal of Mueller is something Washington reporters started sharpening their pencils for the day he was appointed. After ushering out the insufficiently “loyal” James Comey, it would stand to reason that the impetuous president would fire somebody like Mueller just out of pure fury. Also, everybody in Washington either remembers or has read about President Richard Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he gave the order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Boy, would they like some of that! Alas, Trump has so far outfoxed reporters by limiting his Mueller aggression to the occasional feint and growl.
McGahn’s resistance can be read as a profile of integrity, putting himself in history’s pantheon along with Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, both of whom refused to fire Cox on Nixon’s order. (Solicitor General Robert Bork ended up pulling the trigger.) But given a choice between pragmatism and principle, seasoned Washingtonians usually choose pragmatism. Not yet 50 years old, die-hard Republican McGahn has at least two more decades to cash in on his White House years and his previous campaign finance expertise (he served on the Federal Election Commission from 2008 until 2013). Carrying out Trump’s ill-advised instructions would have reduced him to the level of a Michael D. Cohen or Marc E. Kasowitz, just to name a couple of New York hot-shots who have long done Trump’s legal bidding.
If we could inhabit McGahn’s brain, the workings might reveal to us that he thinks Trump has a chance to prevail in the legal arena against Mueller. (Lawyer Ty Cobb, who runs interference for Trump with Mueller’s team, appears to think so, too, and has avoided “combat with Mr. Mueller,” as the Times puts it.) McGahn seems determined to avoid provoking a political battle over the Mueller investigation, one that sacking him might ignite and spread to places a lawyer can’t control.
Republicans spent a good part of the week playing a game of Benghazi bingo with the FBI texts and the “memo“ on alleged intelligence abuses produced by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. For those who’ve never played Benghazi bingo, it goes like this: Find a convoluted and difficult story and cherry-pick from it the most sensational and leading evidence you can to accuse somebody of high perfidy. From the texts, Republicans extracted messages between senior FBI agents (and alleged lovers) Lisa Page and Peter Strzok that they claimed offer proof of FBI bias again Trump and the existence of a “secret society” advancing their nefarious cause. The FBI text conspiracy began to dissolve as the “secret society” context (it appears to have been a joke) was revealed in an ABC News report. The memo, which remains classified, could contain evidence of government wrongdoing, or, as Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said this week in a scorching commentary, it could be a “weapon of partisan media distraction.” Smith poured unusual scorn on the memo’s auteur, Nunes, pointing to his sneaking and slipshod performance last year when he appeared to advance surveillance claims that had originated in the White House.
Special counsel Mueller appears safe for now. Or maybe not. Trump biographer Timothy L. O’Brien predicted at week’s end that Trump would try to fire him again. “Trump's previous maneuvering in this investigation suggests he believes he can do almost whatever he wants,” O’Brien writes. Might he be right? Perhaps the firestorm that official Washington thinks no president could possibly wish upon himself is just the heat treatment Trump thinks will free him from Mueller. As we’ve seen, Trump can only be controlled for so long before he tosses off advisors and minders. Among the expendable were James Comey, Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sebastian Gorka and others.
It matters little that McGahn stopped Trump from firing Mueller last summer. He’s as expendable as the rest. When Trump wants to be Trump, who can stop him?