In May, Trump fired Comey—citing a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, but really, he later admitted, because of the Russia investigation. The night of the firing, a White House press official told the Justice Department that the White House wanted to put out a statement saying it had been Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey, but Rosenstein said he wouldn’t participate in putting out a “false story.” Trump then called Rosenstein and asked him to go on Fox News to take credit for the firing. Rosenstein rejected the idea, saying that “if the press asked him, he would tell the truth: that Comey’s firing was not his idea.”
When Trump learned of Mueller’s appointment as special counsel a few days later, he was apoplectic. “Oh my God,” he said, according to an aide to then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions who was present. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
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Trump began a long series of attempts to curtail the special counsel. He was particularly angry at Sessions, whom he expected to act more as a defense counsel than as the nation’s top law-enforcement official. (In Barr, Trump seems to have found someone more willing to behave that way.) Trump was furious that Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters.
“This is terrible, Jeff,” Trump said. “It’s all because you recused. AG is supposed to be the most important appointment. Kennedy appointed his brother. Obama appointed Holder. I appointed you and you recused yourself. You left me on an island. I can’t do anything.”
Trump demanded Sessions’s resignation. When Sessions submitted a letter, the president didn’t accept the resignation, but he also didn’t give the letter back. This worried aides, who thought—with good reason—that he’d use the letter as leverage over Sessions, and who hoped to recover it. Trump carried the letter with him on a trip overseas, but when Priebus asked about it, Trump lied, claiming that it was back at the White House. In fairness, Priebus wasn’t any more honest with Trump. When, in July 2017, Trump told Priebus to obtain Sessions’s resignation once more, Priebus told the president that he would do so, despite having no intention to act.
As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg has noted, the president often speaks in the manner of a Mafia boss, making threats and delivering orders with barely plausible deniability. He used those techniques on Sessions, trying to persuade him to reverse his recusal. “I’m not going to get involved,” Trump said. “I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.”
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Trump also ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed, citing supposed conflicts of interest. “McGahn said he told the president that he would see what he could do,” the report states. “McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request. He and other advisors believed the asserted conflicts were ‘silly’ and ‘not real.’”