RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're following news this morning related to the Russia investigation. The New York Times and The Washington Post are reporting that last June, President Trump ordered special counsel Robert Mueller to be fired. But White House counsel Don McGahn, who would've carried out that order, refused, and he threatened to quit. So Trump backed down. The president had this reaction today from Davos, Switzerland, where he's attending the World Economic Forum.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Fake news, folks. Fake news.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's your message today?
TRUMP: Typical New York Times fake stories.
MARTIN: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been following this. He joins us in our studio this morning.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What more can you tell us about what the president did or did not do when it comes to Robert Mueller?
LUCAS: Well, first off, NPR has not confirmed this report. But what The New York Times and Washington Post are saying is that, basically, as word kind of emerged last summer that Mueller was looking into a possible obstruction of justice case, Trump and people on his legal team began exploring what they argued were possible conflicts of interest that Mueller might have. They looked at Mueller's one-time membership at a Trump golf course in Northern Virginia - reportedly, there was a dispute about fees there and Mueller left the club; Mueller's connection to a law firm that represented Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. And then they also looked at this idea that because Trump had interviewed Mueller as a possible replacement for James Comey, that that also might present some sort of conflict of interest.
Now, according to the Times, Trump ordered McGahn in June to fire Mueller. McGahn refused and refused to tell the DOJ to do so, the reasoning being that getting rid of Mueller would be this kind of catastrophic mistake for the administration. It would bring down this massive political firestorm on the administration and would raise, ultimately, more questions about obstruction of justice.
MARTIN: That's what McGahn thought...
MARTIN: ...Which is why he threatened to resign. So is this really that big of a surprise, though, because there has been a lot of chatter about the possibility of Donald Trump wanting, at least, to push out Robert Mueller?
LUCAS: Trump has not been much of a fan of Mueller since Day 1. And there has been talk about this, yes, even from people very close to the president. Here's a clip from last June. This is from Christopher Ruddy. He's a longtime friend of the president and the chief executive of the conservative website Newsmax. This is him talking to PBS.
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CHRISTOPHER RUDDY: I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option.
LUCAS: Again, that was last June.
LUCAS: That's when The New York Times was saying that Trump ordered Mueller be fired. Now, the White House kind of shook up the legal team in July - so a month after this - brought on Ty Cobb to organize the response to the special counsel's investigation. Cobb has developed this more conciliatory, cooperative approach with Robert Mueller.
And, in fact, yesterday, the legal team put out a document kind of outlining everything that it has done to, what it says, is cooperate with Robert Mueller. Twenty White House aides have voluntarily given interviews, they say; eight people from the White House counsel's office; nearly 30 people who had connections to the campaign. So they've taken a different approach, certainly, since June of last year.
MARTIN: Right. So this all has to do with how the president handled the firing of James Comey. But at this point, what happens now? I mean, how is Congress responding to these latest allegations? They've got their own investigations into the Russia investigation happening.
LUCAS: They have a whole host of investigations. Democrats have been concerned about this possibility that Mueller could be fired for a while - some Republicans, as well. There were a number of bills that were introduced on the Hill. They haven't really gone anywhere.
After last night's story broke, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, put out a statement saying that firing Mueller would be - that's a red line, cannot happen. There hasn't been much of a response so far from Republicans. Much of it has basically been saying the White House says it will cooperate. We should take them at their word.
MARTIN: All right, NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas - thanks, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.