WASHINGTON - The New York Times and Washington Post report that President Donald Trump ordered special counsel Robert Mueller fired in June, but backed off when the White House counsel threatened to quit. He described the accounts to reporters at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, as "Fake news, folks Fake news. Typical New York Times fake news."
Mueller is investigating allegations the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in interfering in the 2016 presidential election. He is also looking into possible obstruction of justice by the White House.
According to the newspapers, Trump ordered the Justice Department to fire Mueller because Trump felt there were three separate conflicts of interest that disqualified Mueller from leading the investigation: a dispute over membership fees at a Trump-owned golf course that caused Mueller to resign; Mueller worked for a law firm that had represented the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner; and Mueller was interviewed to return to his old job as FBI director the day before he was appointed special counsel.
The reports said White House counsel Don McGahn refused to pass on the president's order to fire Mueller to the Justice Department. McGahn believed firing Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on the Trump presidency and cast an even bigger shadow of alleged obstruction of justice, according to the news reports.
Trump's attorney Ty Cobb declined to comment on the reports "out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process."
Mueller was appointed special counsel in May after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was then heading up the Russia probe.
Comey’s firing has raised questions of whether the president tried to obstruct justice in the investigation.
Meanwhile, Trump’s legal team said Thursday that more than 20 White House employees have voluntarily talked to Mueller and his investigators.
Trump attorney John Dowd said the White House turned over more than 20,000 pages of documents to Mueller, calling it unprecedented cooperation with the investigation.
Dowd called it “the most transparent response in history by a president” to a special counsel.
The document also said 28 others involved with the Trump presidential campaign have been questioned by either Mueller or congressional committees probing the Russian meddling.
Trump told reporters before leaving for Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday that he is “looking forward” to speaking with Mueller in the coming weeks and is willing to do it under oath.
“I would love to do it, and I would like to do it as soon as possible. I would do it under oath, absolutely,” he said.
Trump reiterated that there was no collusion with Russia to help him win the election and suggested he is being investigated for obstruction of justice because he was “fighting back” against the investigation.
Trump’s interview with Mueller’s investigators has not been scheduled. Terms of the interview also have not been set, with Trump saying it would be “subject to my lawyers.”
Speaking to investigators
Months ago, Trump said he would “100 percent” agree to meet with Mueller’s investigators, but more recently questioned why any interview would be needed since he said there was no collusion.
But Trump’s legal team has been trying to temper the president’s remarks. White House lawyer Cobb told the New York Times Wednesday that Trump is “ready to meet with them (Mueller’s investigators), but he’ll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel.”
U.S. law makes it a crime to obstruct justice or hinder an “official proceeding.”
Legal experts say that while a sitting president cannot be prosecuted for obstruction of justice or any other crime, Congress can use the charge of obstruction to impeach a president.
Former President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, in part for obstruction of justice. He was acquitted. President Richard Nixon was facing impeachment in 1974 but resigned first.
Mueller’s investigation into the Russian election interference has reached into Trump’s Cabinet, with the interview last week of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Sessions was a U.S. senator and a Trump campaign advocate, and later played a role in Comey’s firing. Comey was interviewed weeks ago.
Trump has insisted the Mueller investigation and congressional probes into the Russian election meddling are a hoax perpetrated by Democrats looking to explain his upset victory Hillary Clinton.
Trump and Republican colleagues in Congress increasingly have accused the FBI of bias in pursuing the Trump investigation and their dropping without charges of a 2016 probe into Clinton’s handling of classified material on a private email server while she was the country’s top diplomat from 2009 to 2013.