President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last June, but he backed off after White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign, according to a report Thursday in the New York Times.
The newspaper reports that Trump demanded Mueller's firing just weeks after the special counsel was appointed by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein.
McGahn said he would not deliver the order to the Justice Department, according to the Times, which cites four people familiar with the request by the president.
Trump argued at the time that Mueller could not be fair because of a dispute over golf club fees that he said Mueller owed at a Trump golf club in Sterling, Va. The president also believed Mueller had a conflict of interest because he worked for the same law firm that was representing Trump's son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday night. Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer working on the response to Mueller’s investigation, declined to comment Thursday night.
The response from Democrats was nearly immediate. Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that if the report in the Times is true, Trump has crossed a "red line."
"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," Warner said.
The report comes as Mueller moves ever closer to interviewing Trump himself. The president said Wednesday that he would gladly testify under oath — although a White House official quickly said afterward that the president did not mean he was volunteering to testify.
Last June, when Trump was considering how to fire Mueller, the Times report says, the special counsel's inquiry had not progressed far, at least not in public.
At that time he had yet to call on any major witnesses to testify and had not issued any charges or signed any plea deals. But that would change just a few months later, when federal agents would arrest former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos and ultimately turn him into a cooperating witness.
Since then, Trump has largely stopped talking about explicitly trying to fire Mueller, but has instead shifted to accusing Mueller and his team of being biased and unable to complete a fair investigation.
The latest evidence the president has cited was a string of text messages from a former agent on Mueller's team expressing opposition to Trump. But Mueller swiftly removed the agent, Peter Strzok, from his investigation after learning about his texts and long before they were made public.
Former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump advisor Rick Gates were charged by Mueller with criminal conspiracy related to millions of dollars they earned while working for a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian political party. And former national security advisor Michael Flynn agreed to cooperate with investigators in a plea deal revealed two months ago. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Mueller's investigators have been focusing their inquiry in part on questions surrounding Trump's firing of Flynn and of former FBI Director James B. Comey. They have been calling in more witnesses closer to Trump himself and, recently, began negotiating the terms of a possible interview with the president.
On Thursday, Trump's lawyer said that more than 20 White House employees have given interviews to the special counsel in his investigation of possible obstruction of justice and of potential Trump campaign ties to Russian election interference.
John Dowd, Trump's attorney, said the White House has made an unprecedented display of cooperation with Mueller's investigation, turning over more than 20,000 pages of records. The president's 2016 campaign has turned over more than 1.4 million pages.
The number of voluntary interviews included eight people from the White House counsel's office.
An additional 28 people affiliated with the Trump campaign have also been interviewed by either the special counsel or congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Dowd's disclosure did not name the people nor provide a breakdown of how many were interviewed only by Mueller's team.