President Trump denied reports on Jan. 26 that he had ordered special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to be fired in June 2017, calling them "typical New York Times fake stories." (Reuters)

President Trump didn't just consider the most drastic conceivable response to the Russia investigation; he actively tried to do it — until someone stopped him.

During a month in which the Russia probe has steadily crept closer to the president and new details about Trump's attempts to manipulate law enforcement keep coming, we just found out he once tried to remove the man running the show. Yep, all those stories back in June about how Trump might fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III? They weren't just idle speculation, as the president and his team assured us, but rather the result of serious deliberations and an actual, eventual attempt to do the deed.

The only thing that stopped him, according to The Post's reporting, was White House counsel Donald McGahn declining to carry out Trump's orders and saying he would rather resign. And the president backed down. (The news was first reported by the New York Times.)

All signs since then are that Trump and the White House have made their peace with the idea that Mueller would conclude his investigation. They brought on a lawyer, Ty Cobb, who has known Mueller for decades, and their tone turned to one of mostly cooperation — albeit with law enforcement conspiracy theories increasingly sprinkled into the mix.

Still, it's worth emphasizing that this is not something Trump decided against; instead, it's a reality he's been forced into. And the only thing standing in the way of going nuclear and firing Mueller was the prospect of a staff defection that would make the already highly questionable decision — which even GOP senators warned against — look like even more of a PR nightmare. The reporting makes clear that Trump made this decision before it was rendered completely impractical by McGahn. Firing Mueller and then losing McGahn (and possibly Justice Department officials tasked with signing off on it) would have been viewed as pure desperation from a floundering White House.

And in that way, it follows the pattern of so many other attempts by Trump to manipulate law enforcement and those overseeing the Russia probe. He fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was overseeing the investigation at the time, only to have it lead to the appointment of Mueller. He clearly wants to be rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions — whose recusal from Russia-related matters paved the way for Mueller's appointment — but firing Sessions would clearly be a disaster. He has tried to remove Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, only to be rebuffed by Comey's replacement, Christopher A. Wray. There are a bunch more examples.


Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and President Trump. (AFP/Getty Images)

And in a really telling paragraph in its report Thursday night, the Times noted that Trump also considered firing someone else at the top of the Russia probe: Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller and who Trump has suggested is a Democrat, so that the No. 3 person in the Justice Department could take oversight of Mueller's probe.

Another option that Mr. Trump considered in discussions with his advisers was dismissing the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, and elevating the department’s No. 3 official, Rachel Brand, to oversee Mr. Mueller. Mr. Rosenstein has overseen the investigation since March, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.

The combination of that and Mueller's attempted firing, plus everything else, looks like an attempt to install more sympathetic law enforcement officials and possibly even cover up something nefarious. At the very least, it betrays a concern about what these people might find or accuse you of.

And you know what else makes all of this look rather underhanded? The fact that Trump denied even considering firing Mueller.

“I haven't given it any thought,” he told reporters in New Jersey back in August, two months after he not only gave it thought, but decided to do it. “I've been reading about it from you people. You say, 'Oh, I'm going to dismiss him.' No, I'm not dismissing anybody.” Trump was joined in his denial by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who said around the same time that the White House hadn't “even discussed” the idea of firing Mueller.

Perhaps Conway was out of the loop somehow. But Trump's denial is ironclad and diametrically opposed to what we now know he had decided to do just two months prior.

And if the rest of it didn't smell like a coverup, that sure does.