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The Journal Gazette

Friday, April 26, 2019 12:00 pm

Fact check: Trump says he did not try to fire Mueller; what Mueller's report says

Glenn Kessler | Washington Post

"As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so. If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn't need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself. -- President Trump, in a tweet, April 25, 2019

President Donald Trump is disputing a key finding of special counsel Robert Mueller's report -- that he ordered the firing of Robert Mueller.

In this tweet, he somehow tries to blame the media for accurately reporting on what the report said. Perhaps he is trying to avoid saying that a report he has claimed exonerated him was incorrect.

Trump also makes the curious claim that he could have fired Mueller himself. That's not correct.

Mueller was appointed under federal regulations that say the special counsel could be fired only by the attorney general. Because Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, had recused himself from the investigation, the responsibility fell to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The regulations further state the special counsel could be removed only "for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies."

In other words, Trump could have gotten rid of Mueller only if he ordered Rosenstein to fire Mueller -- and if Rosenstein complied. (It's possible Trump meant that he did not need to go through the White House counsel to contact Rosenstein.)

Tweets, of course, are not made under oath. Trump refused to sit for an in-person interview with the special counsel.

Here's what the Mueller report says about this incident -- and the sources of the information.

Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, in the wake of Trump's firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. On June 14, The Washington Post reported that Trump was being investigated for obstruction of justice, and Trump responded with a series of tweets attacking the investigation. Three days later, on June 17, the president called White House counsel Donald McGahn, who was at home, from Camp David.

Before the call

In the weeks leading up to the phone call, Trump had been complaining about alleged conflicts of interest that would disqualify Mueller -- conflicts that his aides told Mueller were silly.

"The President cited as conflicts that Mueller had interviewed for the FBI Director position shortly before being appointed as Special Counsel, that he had worked for a law firm that represented people affiliated with the President, and that Mueller had disputed certain fees relating to his membership in a Trump golf course in Northern Virginia," the report said.

In an FBI interview on or before Oct. 25, 2018, former top Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon said he told the president the purported conflicts were "ridiculous." In Bannon's telling, Mueller had not come to the White House for the purpose of a job interview but to offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI. The law firm position was not a conflict -- and Mueller had already been cleared of ethics issues for his law firm's service by the Justice Department.

The report itself addresses the golf club issue in a footnote: Mueller wrote a resignation letter in 2011 that noted that "we live in the District and find that we are unable to make full use of the Club" and that inquired "whether we would be entitled to a refund of a portion of our initial membership fee," which was paid in 1994. He was told he would be put on a wait list and never heard anything back.

"Bannon told the President that the golf course dispute did not rise to the level of a conflict and claiming one was 'ridiculous and petty,'" the report said.

On June 8, Comey testified before Congress, generating a spate of negative news coverage for Trump suggesting he had obstructed justice.

On June 12, three days before Trump called McGahn, "Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of the President's, met at the White House with Priebus and Bannon," the report said. "Ruddy recalled that they told him the President was strongly considering firing the special counsel and that he would do so precipitously, without vetting the decision through Administration officials."

The report attributes this information to an interview with Ruddy, made under oath on or before June 6.

Trump's call from Camp David was the first of two in which McGahn, under oath, said Trump directed him to seek the removal of Mueller. (The report says phone records show a 23-minute call between the two men on the afternoon of June 17, but not a second call. McGahn is certain he got two calls from Trump on this issue, so the first one may have been on June 14.)

"On the first call, McGahn recalled that the President said something like, 'You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod,'" the report said, citing testimony under oath. "McGahn said he told the President that he would see what he could do. McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request."

The report added: "McGahn considered the President's request to be an inflection point and he wanted to hit the brakes."

On the second call, Trump was more direct, "saying something like, 'Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the Special Counsel.' McGahn recalled the President telling him 'Mueller has to go' and 'Call me back when you do it.'" The report said that "McGahn understood the President to be saying that the Special Counsel had to be removed by Rosenstein."

(Note: In these conversations, Trump appears to understand that, contrary to his tweet, he could not directly fire Mueller and that the step had to be taken by Rosenstein.)

The report cites FBI interviews with McGahn made under oath on or before March 8, 2018, and on or before Feb. 28, 2019.

"When this Office first interviewed McGahn about this topic, he was reluctant to share detailed information about what had occurred and only did so after continued questioning," the report says in a footnote.

McGahn said he felt worn down by Trump and did not know what to do, so he decided to resign. His chief of staff, Annie Donaldson, recalled in an in FBI interview on or before April 2, 2018, that "McGahn told her the President had called and demanded he contact the Department of Justice and that the President wanted him to do something that McGahn did not want to do." McGahn did not tell her the reason but she figured it was because of the Russia investigation.

McGahn, who packed up his office, also informed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Bannon he was resigning. "Priebus recalled that McGahn said that the President had asked him to 'do crazy s---,' but he thought McGahn did not tell him the specifics of the President's request because McGahn was trying to protect Priebus from what he did not need to know," the report said. Priebus and Bannon both described the phone calls in FBI interviews in 2018, saying they had urged McGahn to stay.

Finally, in an FBI interview on or before Feb. 13, 2019, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, reported that Trump, in a phone call in this period, asked what Christie thought about Trump firing Mueller. (Christie advised against the step.)

John Dowd, who served as a member of Trump's legal team from June 2017 until March 2018, told Fox News that he thinks "there was a misunderstanding" between Trump and McGahn.

"I think the president simply wanted McGahn to call Rosenstein, have him vetted, because the president believed Mueller did have some conflicts," he said.

As we noted, the Justice Department had already determined there were no conflicts.

McGahn did not end up resigning. It's unclear whether Trump had heard about his decision to resign -- McGahn said he did not tell the president that directly -- and Trump did not follow up to ask whether he had contacted Rosenstein.

According to the report, Trump changed tack.

Two days after the call, Trump on June 19 directed former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to deliver a message to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the investigation just to election interference by Russia, not obstruction of justice. Lewandowski was only a private citizen and tried to pass the request off to a White House aide, Rick Dearborn. He also balked. (Both men described these events in sworn interviews.)

But the issue of the order to McGahn arose again after the New York Times reported in early 2018 on Trump's June request to McGahn. Trump demanded that McGahn put out a statement denying the story, but he refused, saying it was largely accurate.

"The President then directed [White House staff secretary Rob] Porter to tell McGahn to create a record to make clear that the President never directed McGahn to fire the special counsel," the report said, citing an FBI interview with Porter on or before April 13, 2018. "Porter thought the matter should be handled by the White House communications office, but the President said he wanted McGahn to write a letter to the file 'for our records' and wanted something beyond a press statement to demonstrate that the reporting was inaccurate.... Porter recalled the President saying something to the effect of, 'If he doesn't write a letter, then maybe I'll have to get rid of him.' "

McGahn shrugged off the request. Then McGahn was told to meet with Trump in the Oval Office to discuss the article.

"The President began the Oval Office meeting by telling McGahn that the New York Times story did not 'look good' and McGahn needed to correct it," the report said. McGahn recalled the President said, 'I never said to fire Mueller. I never said "fire." This story doesn't look good. You need to correct this. You're the White House counsel.'"

McGahn responded: "What you said is, 'Call Rod [Rosenstein], tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the special counsel.' " Trump denied that and insisted he only "wanted McGahn to raise the conflicts issue with Rosenstein and leave it to him to decide what to do." McGahn told investigators that he thought Trump was testing him.

Both McGahn and then-White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, who attended the Oval Office meeting, are listed as sources for this conversation. Kelly's FBI interview took place on or before Aug. 2, 2018.

"McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House," the report concluded. "McGahn spoke with the President twice and understood the directive the same way both times, making it unlikely that he misheard or misinterpreted the President's request."

The report adds: "The President's subsequent denials that he had told McGahn to have the special counsel removed were carefully worded. When first asked about the New York Times story, the President said, 'Fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story.' And when the President spoke with McGahn in the Oval Office, he focused on whether he had used the word 'fire,' saying, 'I never said to fire Mueller. I never said "fire"' and 'Did I say the word "fire"?' The President's assertion in the Oval Office meeting that he had never directed McGahn to have the special counsel removed thus runs counter to the evidence."

The Mueller report lists on-the-record and under-oath statements about the events surrounding the order to McGahn from eight people -- McGahn, Donaldson, Kelly, Porter, Priebus, Bannon, Ruddy and Christie. It also quotes from Donaldson's contemporaneous notes and relies on phone records to confirm memories.

In this tweet, as in his confrontation with McGahn, Trump appears to believe the magic-word defense -- that because he did not specifically use the word "fire," he cannot be said to have tried to fire Mueller.

Trump notably refused to testify under oath. His former White House counsel did, and reluctantly revealed to the special counsel that he was told by the president, in two phone calls, to order the dismissal of Mueller. McGahn was prepared to resign instead of carrying out what he perceived as a directive from the president.

Trump's defenders argue this was based on a misunderstanding. But that ignores the fact that Mueller's conflicts supposedly raised by Trump had already been dismissed as ridiculous to the president's face by some of his closest advisers -- and that a number of Trump's aides and friends, in sworn testimony, reported that Trump was ready to order the dismissal of Mueller.

In any case, the president cannot blame the media for reporting on the facts outlined in the Mueller report. Given the weight of the evidence compiled in the report, Trump's tweet is worthy of the maximum four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios