The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump has consistently tried to steer the Russia probe in a different direction — or into a ditch

President Trump attended the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, last week. (Michael Probst/AP)

Update: On Thursday, CNN reported that President Trump was telling people that a memo produced by staffers for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) could undermine the Russia investigation. This timeline has been updated to include that report.

It was no surprise to learn that in June President Trump reportedly wanted to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the man who, a month before, had been tapped to serve as special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election — and how that meddling may have been aided by the Trump campaign.

While some — like Fox News’s Sean Hannity — briefly suggested that the reporting was unbelievable, far more people seem to have found it entirely believable, if not predictable.

Why? Perhaps in part because we already have had a number of reports about ways that the president has tried to redirect or end the Russia investigation. His efforts began shortly after he won the election.

December 2016: After The Washington Post reported on an assessment from the CIA suggesting that Russia tried to help Trump win the White House, the president-elect’s transition team offered a statement.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement began. The unsubtle suggestion was that this intelligence about Russian hacking was similarly flawed. The statement then made the point that is now central to most of Trump’s protests and frustrations: “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” The election is over, and what Russia did is no longer important.

A few days later, Trump blamed the story on Democrats. “I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

January 2017: Intelligence officials — including then-FBI Director James B. Comey — traveled to Trump Tower to brief Trump on the research undergirding their assessments of meddling.

Before they arrived, Trump taunted them on Twitter.

After, Trump presented his takeaway on Twitter, the gist of it being that Russia didn’t change any votes, so, it’s implied, Trump’s victory is therefore beyond question.

At his first news conference since July 2016, Trump acknowledged that the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta  had been the work of Russia — but with a caveat.

“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said. “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

After his inauguration, Trump invited Comey to a dinner at the White House. That dinner took place on Jan. 27, shortly after then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had informed White House counsel Donald McGahn that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump said, according to sworn testimony from Comey. The FBI chief responded with a pledge of honesty.

February: During a private meeting in the Oval Office, Trump hinted to Comey that he should curtail the investigation into Flynn, saying, “I hope you can let this go.” By this point, Flynn had been forced out and Trump unquestionably knew about his false testimony to federal agents.

The next day, Comey asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help him avoid further one-on-one meetings with Trump, out of concern that the president was trying to influence him.

After a New York Times report about interactions between the Trump campaign and Russians, Trump reportedly asked Comey and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to publicly deny the report. Comey later testified that he explained to Trump that such requests were inappropriate.

March: After being criticized for not reporting contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings, the attorney general recused himself from any part of the Russia investigation. Trump, through McGahn and others, had been pressuring Sessions not to recuse himself. The Times reported that Trump’s impetus was explicit: He believed the attorney general’s duties included coming to Trump’s defense, and the president sought that defense on little more than the Russia investigation.

In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee later in the month, Comey confirmed the existence of an investigation into the Trump campaign.

Two days later, Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo to hang back after an Oval Office meeting. Trump reportedly asked them to help pressure the FBI to take the heat off Flynn or to publicly deny any evidence of collusion.

A week later, Trump called Comey, according to the latter’s testimony. The president asked Comey to announce publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation, with the goal of “lifting the cloud” of the Russia investigation.

April: Trump again called Comey to ask what had been done to clear his name (again, according to sworn testimony from Comey). Comey said he suggested that Trump ask McGahn, the White House counsel, to talk to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — then in charge of the Russia investigation after Sessions’s recusal.

May: Trump fired Comey. Ostensibly, the firing was for Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. But during an interview with NBC, Trump told interviewer Lester Holt that while he was deciding Comey’s fate, he was considering that “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

When the Times subsequently reported about the interactions between Trump and Comey, Trump tweeted that Comey better hope there weren’t “tapes” of his conversations with Trump. The president later said there weren’t any such tapes, but Comey, worried about the escalation between the two, leaked details of being pressured on Flynn to an ally who passed it on to the Times.

That report prompted Rosenstein to appoint Mueller to take over the investigation, moving it further away from Trump’s control.

June: The New York Times reported on Thursday that at some point in June, Trump pushed to have Mueller ousted — something the president probably can’t do himself, given the way that the special counsel position was created. Mueller’s role is a semi-independent one; he generally acts with autonomy but could be removed from his position by a senior Justice Department official.

McGahn, however, balked at Trump’s request, even threatening to resign if the president went through with his threat, and Trump reportedly backed down.

Over the summer, Trump also reportedly pressured members of Congress to quickly wrap up their investigations into meddling. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) described the request to the Times as “pressure that should never be brought to bear by an official when the legislative branch is in the process of an investigation.”

August: Christopher A. Wray was confirmed as Comey’s replacement as FBI director on Aug. 1. A few days later, Trump called Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who had been working on legislation that would further protect Mueller from Trump. “Trump was unhappy with the legislation and didn’t want it to pass, one person familiar with the call said,” according to Politico.

Shortly after that, Trump called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). According to the Times, he expressed irritation at “the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

December: Rosenstein visited the White House to seek Trump’s assistance in pushing back on document requests from the House Intelligence Committee, according to CNN. While there, Trump asked him if he was “on my team,” to which Rosenstein reportedly replied, “Of course, we’re all on your team, Mr. President.”

Wray didn’t get much of a honeymoon period. Earlier this week, The Post reported that Wray had been pressured by Sessions to fire McCabe. According to Axios, Wray threatened to resign rather than do so.

January 2018: As a debate rages on Capitol Hill over a memo alleging politically motivated misconduct by agents of the FBI, Trump tells aides and friends that he sees the memo as a way of undercutting the Mueller investigation, according to CNN.

The memo, produced by staffers for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has been criticized by Democrats as biased and incomplete and by Trump’s own FBI and Department of Justice as misleading. (Nunes has a track record of making dubious assertions in defense of Trump.) As he considered releasing the memo publicly, as requested by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, which Nunes chairs, Trump apparently contextualized the document as helping his efforts to cast the Mueller investigation in a negative light.

That argument directly contradicts the insistence of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this week. Ryan, recognizing the political trickiness of the memo, argued that it was unrelated to Mueller and should not be considered as reflecting on that investigation.

All of this is the context in which Trump’s request about Mueller should be considered. Did Trump want Mueller fired last June? That’s what multiple outlets have reported. But, moreover, it’s completely of a piece with every other reaction Trump has had to the Russia investigation.

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.