WASHINGTON • A long-time friend of Mr Donald Trump has said that the US President was considering whether to fire Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between Mr Trump's election campaign and Russian officials.
The startling assertion on Monday came as some of Mr Trump's conservative allies, who initially praised Mr Mueller's selection as special counsel, have begun trying to attack his credibility.
Mr Trump's friend, Mr Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, said on the Public Broadcasting Service's NewsHour programme that the President was "considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel".
"I think he's weighing that option," Mr Ruddy said.
His comments appeared to take the White House by surprise.
"Mr Ruddy never spoke to the President regarding this issue,"White House press secretary Sean Spicer said later. "With respect to this subject, only the President or his attorneys are authorised to comment."
Allies of the President cast doubt on the idea that Mr Trump would take such a drastic step, and officials said Mr Ruddy had not met Mr Trump directly while visiting the White House on Monday.
Firing Mr Mueller would be politically explosive and would raise new questions about Mr Trump, whose dismissal of Mr James Comey as FBI chief led to charges of obstruction of justice - and to Mr Mueller's appointment.
Under Justice Department rules, Mr Trump would have to order Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein to rescind department regulations protecting a special counsel from being fired for no good reason, and then to fire Mr Mueller. If Mr Rosenstein refused, Mr Trump could fire him, too.
If Mr Trump instructs Mr Rosenstein to dump Mr Mueller, it would evoke memories of 1973, when two top Justice Department officials, Mr Elliott Richardson and Mr Bill Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than obey then President Richard Nixon's order to fire Mr Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor conducting the Watergate investigation.
Mr Mueller is in the earliest stages of his investigation and still building up his team that will lead the probe.
In the interview, Mr Ruddy said Mr Trump had considered replacing Mr Comey with Mr Mueller, who served as FBI director during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. A senior White House official confirmed that the President had interviewed Mr Mueller for the FBI post in the Oval Office the day before Mr Rosenstein tapped him to be the special counsel in the Russia investigation.
Mr Ruddy said the President was weighing whether to dismiss Mr Mueller because of concerns about conflicts of interest. He said those concerns included the interview for the FBI post and connections between Mr Mueller's law firm and White House officials. Mr Ruddy said Mr Mueller has some "conflicts" because his former law firm, Wilmer Hale, also representing Ms Ivanka Trump, the President's daughter, and her husband, Mr Jared Kushner.
Democrats, reacting to the chatter, said that if Mr Trump fired Mr Mueller they would try to enact an independent counsel statute so they could appoint him. They did not explain how they would push that idea through a Republican Congress.
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