In August of last year, shortly after FBI agents raided the home of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Trump was asked in a news conference whether he had considered firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
“I haven’t given it any thought,” Trump said. “Well, I’ve been reading about it from you people. You say, ‘Oh, I’m going to dismiss him.’ No, I’m not dismissing anybody.”
A report from the New York Times Thursday says otherwise: Trump not only considered ousting Mueller, he actually tried to do it.
The Times reported that Trump in June ordered Mueller fired after seeing news reports that the special counsel was investigating him for potential obstruction of justice, and backed off only after White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign in protest. The Washington Post confirmed the account.
Trump called the reports “fake news” on Friday morning. “Typical New York Times. Fake stories,” he said.
The president’s lawyers declined to comment.
Trump’s August news conference was one of many occasions since summer in which the president, his lawyers and White House staff have tried to dispel rumors that Mueller was on the chopping block. Here’s a partial rundown of some of the public appearances in which the president and his surrogates said that Trump was not thinking about terminating the special counsel.
Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump and head of the conservative media outlet Newsmax, sent Washington into a frenzy when he told PBS “NewsHour” that Trump was “considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel.”
“I think he’s weighing that option,” he said, adding that he thought the move would be a mistake. Shortly before the interview, Ruddy had visited the White House, leading some to speculate that he was testing the waters for the president.
At the time, no one in the administration specifically disputed Ruddy’s statement, saying only that Ruddy had not discussed the possibility of firing Mueller with Trump. “While the president has a right to, he has no intention to do so,” then-deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee said. “Chris Ruddy speaks for himself,” added then-press secretary Sean Spicer.
The White House’s evasions were not lost on Ruddy, who called the White House “ridiculous” for challenging his remarks, as Politico reported.
“He did not deny it,” Ruddy said of Spicer’s response, adding that he never purported to have spoken with the president about the matter. “He did not issue a statement denying my story. It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s amateur hour.”
During a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times, reporter Peter Baker brought up Mueller’s investigation.
“What would cause you — what would be the line beyond which if Mueller went, you would say, ‘That’s too far, we would need to dismiss him,'” Baker asked.
Trump avoided the question. In a meandering response, he discussed what he said were conflicts of interest surrounding the investigation, accused former FBI director James B. Comey of illegally leaking details about conversations they had, and said he would have fired Comey with or without a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein recommending he do so.
In the same conversation, Trump lamented that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, saying he would have picked somebody else for the job if he had known Sessions would pull out. The president also noted that he had interviewed Mueller to replace Comey as FBI director, a position Mueller held from 2001 to 2013.
“He wanted the job,” Trump told the Times. Mueller was named special counsel soon after. According to the Times story on the president’s attempt to fire Mueller, Trump perceived that as a conflict of interest on Mueller’s part that justified his dismissal.
In an ABC News segment, host George Stephanopoulos asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, “Does the president commit to not firing Robert Mueller?”
“The president has not even discussed that,” Conway said. “The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller.”
When the host interjected and said that wasn’t what he was asking, Conway responded, “I’m not the president’s lawyer here.”
Two days after Conway’s appearance on ABC News, one of the president’s lawyers spoke with USA Today about how Trump, through his legal team, had sent messages of “appreciation” to Mueller’s office. Asked if Trump might try to remove Mueller, John Dowd, the president’s chief defense lawyer, told the newspaper it was out of the question.
“That has never been on the table, never,” Dowd said. “It’s a manifestation of the media. My dealings with Bob Mueller have always been cordial, respectful — the way it should be.”
In a news conference from his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump discussed the July FBI raid on his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Va. It was there that Trump told reporters he hadn’t given “any thought” to dismissing Mueller.
“I mean, I want them to get on with the task,” he said of the special counsel’s investigation. “But I also want the Senate and House to come out with their findings.”
In October, Mueller unsealed indictments against Manafort and one of his former business associates charging them with conspiracy to launder money, making false statements and other counts. They have pleaded not guilty.
During a news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Trump was asked whether he was considering firing Mueller. “No, not at all,” the president told reporters. But he added that Mueller’s team “ought to get to the end” of the investigation.
“We’d like to see it end,” he said. “The whole Russian thing was an excuse for the Democrats losing the election.”
Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer coordinating the administration’s response to the Russia investigation, tried to dash speculation by a member of Congress that Trump would terminate the special counsel.
“As the White House has consistently said for months, there is no consideration of firing the special counsel,” Cobb told CNN.
The statement from Cobb came after Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said in an interview with KQED that she believed the president “wants to shut down these investigations and he wants to fire special counsel Mueller.”
A day after Cobb’s statement, Trump himself was asked about whether he was considering such a move. “No, I’m not,” he told reporters.
Trump aides also sought to quell the rumor earlier that day. “There is no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House,” said Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
At the end of the year, as congressional Democrats pushed for legislation to prevent Trump from ousting Mueller before the conclusion of the probe, Cobb again tried to pushed back against talk that the special counsel was in jeopardy.
“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,” Cobb said in a statement.
He told CNN the same: “If the media is going to continue to ask for responses to every absurd and baseless rumor, attention-seeking partisans will continue to spread them.”
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