US President Trump reportedly backed down from his order to get rid of Mueller only after a White House lawyer threatened to quit rather than fire the special counsel.
US President Donald Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller but backed down after a member of the White House legal team warned he would resign over the order, The New York Times reported on Thursday, citing four anonymous individuals close to the matter.
Mueller initially had been tasked with looking into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, an investigation that included examining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign team and Russian officials. In July 2017, US media reported that the special counsel was also looking into whether Trump had attempted to obstruct justice in the investigation.
The US president has repeatedly denied that he attempted to fire Mueller at any point.
Mueller had been appointed special counsel last May after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, who had been heading up the Russia investigation. Comey said that Trump had urged him to drop the investigation into the firing of the president's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is considered a key witness in Comey's firing and who recused himself from the Russia investigation last March, was interviewed by Mueller last week.
Searching for conflict of interest
According to the report, Trump pressed for Mueller's dismissal based on three potential conflicts of interest:
When Trump subsequently ordered White House lawyer Donald F. McGahn II to ask the Justice Department to fire Mueller, McGahn refused and threatened to step down rather than carry through on the command. The lawyer argued that firing Mueller would have a "catastrophic effect" on the investigation and invite accusations of obstruction the Russia investigation, The New York Times reported.
Trump reportedly backed off after McGahn's threat. The article, as well as a confirming report in the Washington Post, also said White House lawyers have consistently advised the president not to criticize Mueller or his investigation.
Last month, Trump said an interview with the Times that he believed Mueller would be fair in judging him and reiterated that there had been no collusion. Trump recently said he would be willing to be interviewed by Mueller under oath.
A 'red line'
White House lawyer Ty Cobb said in a statement that, "We decline to comment [on the NYTimes report] out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process."
However, Democrats were swift to condemn Trump's reported attempt to ax Mueller.
Democratic representative from Illinois, Raja Krishnamoorthi, who formerly served in the state's anti-corruption unit, tweeted that seeking Mueller's removal would be an "impeachable offence" and highlighted that "endeavoring" to obstruct justice is a crime, regardless of whether one succeeds.
Democratic Virginia senator Mark Warner also called the attempt to fire Mueller a "red line" and a "gross abuse of power":
Even some Republicans had words of warning for the president. Republican representative from Florida Carlos Curbelo used his personal Twitter account to warn that, "Any effort to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with our elections is unacceptable."