One Saturday in June 2017, President Donald Trump called Don McGahn twice at home. The president ordered the White House counsel to fire Robert Mueller, who at that point had been leading the Russia probe for one month. “You gotta do this,” Trump told him. “You gotta call Rod.” In his second call, Trump told McGahn, “Call me back when you do it.”
The special counsel’s report—released on Thursday to the public—goes on to reveal that McGahn refused to call then–Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and direct him to fire Mueller. Instead, McGahn called then–Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and then chief strategist Steve Bannon to let them know that he was resigning, and that the president had asked him to “do crazy shit.” But Priebus and Bannon persuaded him to stick around. McGahn relented. The president never brought up the question again—and a potentially criminal act of obstruction of justice was narrowly averted.
Throughout Mueller’s 448-page report are cases of White House aides resisting Trump’s directives, sparing him even more legal and political peril. Aides would stand up to Trump and refuse to carry out certain orders, or they’d simply ignore him, often in the hope that he’d forget the demand. In doing so, they protected Trump from his own worst instincts and potentially a more damning conclusion from Mueller’s team of prosecutors. Mueller himself noted the irony in a passage centering on the obstruction-of-justice investigation: “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” he wrote.