The Saturday Night Massacre That Wasn't

President Trump reportedly tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller in June—a move that underscores his volatility, and his drive to undermine the investigation.

Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

For months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed, President Trump openly flirted with firing him, delivering threats via public warnings about “red lines” Mueller shouldn’t cross.

It turns out that Trump wasn’t just rattling his saber publicly: According to a New York Times report late Thursday, the president attempted to fire Mueller in June 2017, roughly a month after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed him. But Trump was blocked by White House Counsel Don McGahn, who reportedly threatened to quit rather than make good on the order. The Washington Post confirmed the story.

The episode adds new intrigue to the already transfixing dance between the president and the special counsel’s probe. Mueller is working to interview Trump in the near future, and has already extracted guilty pleas from two former aides, as well as indicting two more. The episode underscores Trump’s volatile temperament and tendency to act impulsively, and it once again thrusts McGahn and his office into the spotlight.

Trump’s desire to fire Mueller was never especially surprising or hidden. Everyone tied to the Russia investigation seems to have been in his sights at one time or another. Mueller’s appointment stemmed from Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, and Trump also raged at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from Russia matters, and at Rod Rosenstein, who he suggested was a random Democrat, rather than a rock-ribbed Republican appointed to his job by Trump himself. The president mused about firing Mueller in an interview with the Times, and in July I wrote that the operative question was not if but when Trump would try to fire Mueller. As it turns out, he already had.

But such a maneuver would have been perilous, as McGahn argued. Attempting to fire a special counsel would immediately bring back memories of the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which President Richard Nixon moved to dismiss the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. He was successful, but only after the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than dismiss Archibald Cox. A judge later ruled the firing was illegal, but at that point the greatest damage had already been done in political terms, and the firing came to be seen as the beginning of the end for Nixon’s presidency. The Times reports that in addition to telling McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump weighed removing Rosenstein. If either man had gone, it could have set off a replay of the Saturday Night Massacre.

Trump offered three rationales for firing Mueller, the Times reported:

First, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., had prompted Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I. director at the time, to resign his membership. The president also said Mr. Mueller could not be impartial because he had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Finally, the president said, Mr. Mueller had been interviewed to return as the F.B.I. director the day before he was appointed special counsel in May.

None of these arguments represents a compelling conflict of interest (indeed the first and third seem somewhat contradictory), and none of them falls afoul of the Justice Department’s strict guidelines for avoiding conflicts. Trump surrogates like Chris Ruddy were out making similar arguments at the time, but White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that while Trump could fire Mueller, he did not intend to. Congressional Republicans dismissed the idea as too far-fetched to be true.

News of the attempted firing comes as Trump’s lawyers negotiate the terms on which the president would offer testimony to Mueller. While the president has long said he didn’t think he’d need to testify, he changed his tune on Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to it, actually,” he said. “I would love to do that—I’d like to do it as soon as possible.” This was followed by the unusual spectacle of the president’s lawyer contradicting him and saying he’d follow legal advice; on Thursday, another Trump lawyer said no decision had been made. Given the president’s previous pretextual justifications for firing Mueller, it would not be surprising to see him argue that Mueller is now irrevocably compromised because he knows that Trump tried to fire him.

Members of Congress have repeatedly warned Trump against firing Mueller, though it’s impossible to predict quite how battles lines would look if he did. In response to the Times report Thursday, Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a fresh warning.

“I’ve said it before, and I am saying it again: firing the special counsel is a red line that the president cannot cross,” Warner said in a statement. “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.”

The news of the June showdown once again places McGahn at the center of attention, an unusual (and likely uncomfortable) role for a White House counsel. McGahn came to the White House after serving as Trump’s campaign lawyer, but he has an unusually GOP-establishment resume for a Trump aide. (McGahn, with long hair and a side gig in a rock band, has always been a bit apart from the establishment, too.)

McGahn’s office has been central to several key developments in the Russia saga. According to an NBC News report this week, McGahn was the first White House official to learn of Flynn’s January 24 interview with the FBI. That interview would prove cataclysmic. Flynn lied to FBI agents about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, eventually leading to a December 2017 guilty plea and an agreement to cooperate with Mueller. NBC said Flynn did not tell McGahn about the interview, and McGahn learned about it from Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Flynn also lied to Vice President Pence, which precipitated his dismissal in February. Trump, in turn, asked Comey to lay off of Flynn, one of several encounters that escalated to Comey’s firing—and, by extension, Mueller’s appointment. Trump’s conversations with and eventual firing of Comey also form the basis for a presumed investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice in the Flynn case.

When Trump decided to fire Comey, according to a earlier report in the Times, a former career Justice Department lawyer now working in McGahn’s office named Uttam Dhillon thought such a dismissal would be catastrophic and tried to convince the president that he did not have the authority to fire the FBI director. Later research proved that the president did have such authority, though Dhillon’s prediction about political fallout has proven accurate. Unsurprisingly, Mueller has shown an interest in McGahn’s office. McGahn himself has been interviewed twice, and eight members of his office have spoken to the probe, according to the White House.

McGahn’s bold decision to defy Trump may well have saved the president from himself. It is tempting to wonder whether McGahn could have saved Trump even more headaches if he had dissuaded him from firing Comey a month earlier by threatening to resign then. Yet hindsight here is less than 20-20: Comey would have remained head of the FBI and head of the investigation into Russian interference in the election, and might have been just as dogged in pursuing it as Mueller has been. Nor does anyone besides the president have a firm grasp on what Mueller might find.

It is up to Mueller to decide whether Trump’s actions merit a charge of obstruction of justice, but for Congress and the public, the central question remains what it is that has made Trump so anxious to suffocate the probes examining his campaign, presidency, and finances.