Donald Trump denies report he tried to fire Robert Mueller in June

Donald Trump has denied a report he ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but was persuaded against it after the White House counsel threatened to resign.

The New York Times, citing four people familiar with the matter, said the president ordered the White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election including possible contacts with the Trump campaign. McGahn refused and said he would resign before carrying out the directive.

Background

Robert S Mueller III, 73, is a former FBI director who was appointed by George W Bush and held over by Barack Obama beyond his 10-year term. The term extension required special congressional action which the Senate approved 100-0. Previously, Mueller held two different US attorney posts and was an assistant attorney general in the George HW Bush administration.

Special counsel

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017, eight days after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. A special counsel is a prosecutor appointed in extraordinary circumstances or in cases of conflicts of interest within the justice department. In this case, there was a need for someone to investigate the Russian matter who was not appointed by or beholden to Trump.

Mueller’s team of 17 lawyers operates independently of, but (ideally) in cooperation with, Congress, which has three committees conducting investigations in parallel to Mueller. Mueller is expected to submit a report to Congress and may bring criminal charges separately.

Mueller has a sizeable budget and an open-ended term. He is specifically authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” plus any matters that “may arise directly from the investigation”. He has the power to prosecute federal crimes.

Can he be replaced?

Mueller was appointed by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, with attorney general Jeff Sessions having earlier recused himself from the Russia investigation. In theory, only Rosenstein may remove Mueller, although if Trump wanted to fire Mueller, and Rosenstein were unwilling, Trump could replace Rosenstein.

Trump's view

Trump has said Mueller “is very, very good friends with [James] Comey, which is very bothersome” but also said “Robert Mueller is an honorable man.”

“Fake news, folks, fake news,” Trump told reporters in Davos, when asked about the report.

The report said Trump had outlined a case for why he believed Mueller should be fired, citing three conflicts of interest that disqualified him from overseeing the Russia investigations.

First, Trump alleged, a dispute over membership fees at Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia led Mueller to resign as a member in 2011. Trump saw another potential conflict because Mueller had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Lastly, Trump said Mueller had been interviewed to return as the FBI director the day before he was appointed special counsel.

Ty Cobb, the president’s lawyer, said in a statement to the Times: “We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.” A spokesman for the special counsel also declined to comment.

Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion or obstruction.

Senator Mark Warner, the vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, which is conducting its own investigation into Russian interference, warned that firing Mueller was a “red line” the president “cannot cross”.

“Any attempt to remove the special counsel, pardon key witnesses, or otherwise interfere in the investigation, would be a gross abuse of power, and all members of Congress, from both parties, have a responsibility to our constitution and to our country to make that clear immediately,” Warner said in a statement responding to the story.

The report follows developments that the special counsel interviewed attorney general Jeff Sessions for several hours last week. Sessions announced in March 2017 that he would recuse himself from any role in it after it was revealed that he had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during the 2016 campaign. The former Alabama senator endorsed Trump in February 2016 and was a key surrogate during the campaign.

It was also reported this week that former FBI director James Comey was interviewed by the special counsel as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling.

Trump fired Comey in May 2017, raising concerns that he tried to obstruct the FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russians. Comey reportedly met last year with the special counsel to answer questions about contemporaneous memos he wrote regarding interactions with the president that concerned him.

In one instance, Comey testified, Trump asked him for loyalty and asked him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser. Comey said he evaded those demands and was soon fired.

Earlier this week, the New York Times- reported that the special counsel was seeking to interview Trump about the president’s decision to fire Flynn and Comey. Mueller’s reported focus on their firings is the latest indication that the special counsel’s team is zeroing in on potential obstruction of justice issues.

Trump on Wednesday told reporters he was “looking forward” to speaking with Mueller, ending months of speculation about whether he would submit to an interview.

“I would love to do it,” Trump told reporters in the room, adding that an interview could occur within two to three weeks.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Lauren Gambino in Washington, for The Guardian on Friday 26th January 2018 09.46 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010