Since April of 2018, lawmakers in both parties have periodically undertaken to pass legislation meant to prevent the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, out of fear that President Donald Trump might end the investigatory probe into his campaign’s involvement in Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But time and again, Republicans in leadership positions balked at allowing such a bill to be passed, believing that Trump would never contemplate doing something as unthinkable as firing Mueller in the middle of his probe.
Such assurances were misplaced, according to Mueller’s own report, which documents Trump’s desire to send Mueller packing in great detail.
According to the special counsel’s report, released Thursday, the president repeatedly directed White House counsel Don McGahn to direct Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to remove Mueller beginning on June 17, 2017, when Trump “called [McGahn] at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel.”
“You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod,” McGahn recalled the president saying in a call that left the attorney feeling “perturbed.” According to the report, McGahn did not act on the president’s demand because he and other White House advisers believed Trump’s contentions to be “silly” and “not real” — a “they had previously communicated that view to the president.”
But the brakes were not applied. Trump called McGahn a second time, at which point he had become “more direct” in his instructions to McGahn: “Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.” McGahn says that the president stressed that “Mueller had to go” and that he wanted to be notified as soon as the deed was done. McGahn, “worn down” by Trump’s repeated urgings, got off the phone by leaving Trump under the impression that his request would be carried out.
In reality, however, a “trapped” McGahn “decided that he had to resign,” going as far as driving to the office to “pack his belongings and submit his resignation letter.”
In April of the following year, a bipartisan group of senators moved to protect Mueller from being removed from his special counsel post, through the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act.
Introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and co-sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Thom Tillis (R-NC), the bill combined a pair of previously introduced bills into one proposed measure that would mandate that Mueller could only be removed from office by the attorney general (or most senior Senate-confirmed official at the Justice Department) — and only then for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause.”
But over the course of a calendar year, the effort to enshrine these protections for Mueller have been repeatedly waylaid by Republican lawmakers. Some, like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), stated that their opposition to the legislation was related to constitutional grounds. But many others opposed the idea of the bill solely because of the belief that such protections were unnecessary, that Trump would never fire Mueller.
In March of 2018, The Washington Post reported that “top Republican leaders” had “expressed confidence” that “special counsel Robert Mueller III will be able to finish his Russia investigation unimpeded, despite President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the probe.”
“Look, first of all, the special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference, absolutely. I am confident he will be able to do that,” said then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who added, “I have received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration. We have a system based upon rule of law in this country.”
Ryan’s confidence was echoed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY): “I don’t think Bob Mueller is going anywhere. I think there’s widespread feeling, and the president’s lawyers obviously agree, that he ought to be allowed to finish the job.” The Post also reported that Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) had personally spoken to the president and come away with assurances that he had “no plans to actually take steps to oust the special counsel.”
At the beginning of November, McConnell repeated these same assurances. “The president has said on multiple occasions the Mueller investigation should be completed,” said McConnell in a radio interview, “He [wishes] it would happen sooner. But I don’t think there’s any chance that the Mueller investigation will not be allowed to finish.”
Twenty days later, the Senate blocked the passage of the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act.
Even Graham, the bill’s co-sponsor, has insisted that Trump would never actually contemplate firing Mueller. “I have every confidence Mr. Mueller will be allowed to finish the job. However, there needs to be institutional protections for special counsels both now and in the future,” Graham said in mid-January of this year.
But the Mueller report officially puts paid to these notions, according to the president’s own lawyer — who was fearful of the repercussions.
Per the report:
McGahn was concerned about having any role in asking the Acting Attorney General to fire the Special Counsel because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Robert Bork and not “Saturday Night Massacre Bork.” McGahn considered the President’s request to be an inflection point and he wanted to hit the brakes.
According to the Mueller report, after McGahn had made up his mind to resign rather than remove Mueller from his post, he approached Reince Priebus about his intentions, telling the then-White House chief of staff that the president had “asked him to ‘do crazy shit.'” It was, perhaps, naive of Republican leaders like Ryan and McConnell to believe the president to be incapable of such things.
More importantly, as the special counsel’s report related: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked to the Special Counsel’s oversight of investigations that involved the President’s conduct — and, most immediately, to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.”