Trump denies trying to fire Mueller over Russian probe

Mr Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, is the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation.
Mr Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, is the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation.

He was said to have backed off after White House counsel said he'd quit

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump ordered the firing last June of Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.

Mr Trump denied yesterday reports that he had ordered Mr Mueller to be fired last June. "Fake news. Fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories," Mr Trump told reporters as he arrived to give a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel. Mr Mueller learnt about the episode in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the President obstructed justice.

Amid the first wave of reports that Mr Mueller was examining a possible obstruction case, the President began to argue that Mr Mueller had three conflicts of interest that disqualified him from overseeing the inquiry, two of the people said.

First, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, had prompted Mr Mueller, then the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to resign his membership. The President also said Mr Mueller could not be impartial because he had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented the President's son-in-law, Mr Jared Kushner. Finally, Mr Trump said, Mr Mueller had been interviewed to return as the FBI director the day before he was appointed special counsel in May.

After receiving the President's order to fire Mr Mueller, White House counsel Donald McGahn II refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead, the people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation.

Mr McGahn disagreed with the President's case and told senior White House officials that firing Mr Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Mr Trump's presidency. Mr McGahn also told White House officials that Mr Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own. The President then backed off.

Mr Ty Cobb, who manages the White House's relationship with Mr Mueller's office, said in a statement: "We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process."

Mr McGahn, a long-time Republican campaign finance lawyer in Washington who served on the Federal Election Commission, was the top lawyer on Mr Trump's campaign. He has been involved in nearly every key decision Mr Trump has made - like the firing of former FBI director James Comey - that is being scrutinised by Mr Mueller.

Mr McGahn was also concerned that firing the special counsel would incite more questions about whether the White House was trying to obstruct the Russia investigation.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'Trump denies trying to fire Mueller over Russian probe'. Print Edition | Subscribe