President Trump and his aides are playing an interesting game with the Mueller report. They are claiming it as complete exoneration but also attempting to poke holes in its foundations and some of its details. And now, they’re going after its characterization of one of the biggest events in the obstruction probe: Trump’s attempt to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Mueller, though, doesn’t seem to harbor any doubt that it happened.
In interviews Sunday and Monday, Trump legal spokesman Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Trump lawyer John Dowd both cast doubt upon former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s recollection of this. The argument put forth by Giuliani and Dowd is that Trump wasn’t as direct about his request as McGahn seemed to believe.
“I think the president simply wanted McGahn to call [Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein and have [Mueller] vetted,” Dowd told Fox News on Monday morning. He added: “The president was entitled to do that.”
On the Sunday shows, Giuliani accused McGahn of giving competing accounts of the attempt to fire Mueller and his own threat to resign over it. He said he wasn’t calling McGahn a liar, but that he was “confused.”
“The first version of that conversation is the president used the word ‘fire,’ and he told the president ‘I’m going to resign’ directly,” Giuliani told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “He then recants that and says no ‘fire,’ no statement that I was going to resign. And then he comes up with . . . a third version which is even softer which says something like, ‘He should be fired’ or 'He has conflicts; he can’t be special prosecutor.’ ”
Giuliani added on CNN: "'He shouldn’t be special counsel’ means it’s wrong that he’s special counsel. It doesn’t say any specific action.”
It’s not clear what Giuliani is referring to when he references the three different versions, but he seems to be talking about the initial reporting on the event. The New York Times broke the story, saying Trump had “ordered the firing” of Mueller but that he “ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign.” The Washington Post then confirmed those basic details but added that McGahn hadn’t directly informed Trump of his threat to resign.
It’s worth emphasizing, though, that the Times never actually said McGahn had directly informed Trump. There is no evidence that McGahn, if he was a source for these stories, actually changed his account. The Mueller report addresses this issue, saying that The Post story “clarified” the Times’s story — not that it corrected it. “In that respect, the Post story clarified the Times story, which could be read to suggest that McGahn had told the President of his intention to quit, causing the President to back down from the order to have the Special Counsel fired,” the report says.
As for McGahn’s supposed “third” version of events — the one he gave to Mueller — it’s rather unequivocal and consistent. A sampling:
- McGahn said Trump said something on their first phone call to the effect of “You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod.”
- On their second call, McGahn said Trump told him, “Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel,” and “Mueller has to go,” and “Call me back when you do it.”
- When Trump’s personal lawyer reached out to get McGahn to knock down the Times’s story, McGahn declined and his “attorney informed the President’s personal counsel that the Times story was accurate in reporting that the President wanted the Special Counsel removed.”
- Trump then tried again, asking staff secretary Rob Porter to get McGahn to write a letter to create an internal record denying the Times story. McGahn again declined. “McGahn shrugged off the request, explaining that the media reports were true. McGahn told Porter that the President had been insistent on firing the Special Counsel and that McGahn had planned to resign rather than carry out the order, although he had not personally told the President he intended to quit.”
- In a later in-person meeting, Trump again pressed McGahn. According to the report, McGahn again said the central premise of the story was accurate. “The President asked McGahn, ‘Did I say the word ‘fire?’ McGahn responded, ‘What you said is, ‘Call Rod [Rosenstein], tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel’.’ The President responded, ‘I never said that.’ The President said he merely wanted McGahn to raise the conflicts issue with Rosenstein and leave it to him to decide what to do. McGahn told the President he did not understand the conversation that way and instead had heard, ‘Call Rod. There are conflicts. Mueller has to go.’"
So right there are three instances in which McGahn had his recollection of Trump’s request questioned, all of them in private and under lots of pressure from the president. And in each one, he stands by his statements that Trump sought to have Mueller fired.
The Mueller report itself acknowledges that this is a point that is disputed between the Trump team and McGahn, but it argues that McGahn’s version is compelling (key parts bolded):
Some of the President’s specific language that McGahn recalled from the calls is consistent with [Trump’s] explanation. Substantial evidence, however, supports the conclusion that the President went further and in fact directed McGahn to call Rosenstein to have the Special Counsel removed.
First, McGahn’s clear recollection was that the President directed him to tell Rosenstein not only that conflicts existed but also that “Mueller has to go.” McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House. McGahn spoke with the President twice and understood the directive the same way both times, making it unlikely that he misheard or misinterpreted the President’s request. In response to that request, McGahn decided to quit because he did not want to participate in events that he described as akin to the Saturday Night Massacre.
Third, the President’s sense of urgency and repeated requests to McGahn to take immediate action on a weekend — “You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod.” — support McGahn’s recollection that the President wanted the Department of Justice to take action to remove the Special Counsel. Had the President instead sought only to have the Department of Justice re-examine asserted conflicts to evaluate whether they posed an ethical bar, it would have been unnecessary to set the process in motion on a Saturday and to make repeated calls to McGahn.
Finally, the President had discussed “knocking out Mueller” and raised conflicts of interest in a May 23, 2017 call with McGahn, reflecting that the President connected the conflicts to a plan to remove the Special Counsel. And in the days leading up ta June 17, 2017, the President made clear to [Reince] Priebus and [Stephen K.] Bannon, who then told [Christopher] Ruddy, that the President was considering terminating the Special Counsel. Also during this time period, the President reached out to [Chris] Christie to get his thoughts on firing the Special Counsel. This evidence shows that the President was not just seeking an examination of whether conflicts existed but instead was looking to use asserted conflicts as a way to terminate the Special Counsel.
In the end, Mueller was apparently confident enough to believe McGahn’s memory was accurate. At one point, the report even states flatly, “On Saturday, June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed.”
It seems the Trump team isn’t finished litigating that point, but Mueller is.