Thursday’s revelation that President Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in June 2017 is important, but not shocking. Around the time of the attempted dismissal, Trump surrogates were raising the idea in public, and news reports said he was considering the move. The White House was careful to say that while the president was not considering a firing, he certainly would be within his rights. The following month, he implied in an interview with The New York Times that he might fire Mueller if he poked into personal finances.
What is a little surprising is that Trump backed down. White House Counsel Don McGahn reportedly refused to carry out the firing, and threatened to resign instead. Trump decided not to act. Or is it that surprising? This is at least the third occasion on which Trump has tried to force the hand of an aide, and then acquiesced when he was told no.
In spring 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was under pressure to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference into the election, after it became clear he had omitted several contacts with Russians during the Trump campaign from his disclosures to the Senate during the confirmation process. Trump sent McGahn to try to convince Sessions not to recuse himself. But although Sessions had not yet announced it, he had already decided he needed to step away, the Times reported: “After Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that career Justice Department officials had said he should step aside, Mr. McGahn said he understood and backed down.” That enraged Trump, who has continued to periodically blast Sessions’s recusal in interviews, but the president did not fire Sessions or McGahn, and in fact he reportedly rejected a resignation letter from the attorney general in May.