Fake news, or merely early? The New York Times and other media outlets reported in December that Donald Trump was about to fire Rex Tillerson, Trump insisted that there had been nothing to the stories, at least not until Trump actually did fire Tillerson three months later. On Tuesday, the NYT reported that Trump had planned to fire Robert Mueller in December as well, in part because of a botched news story by Bloomberg, as John noted earlier:
The president’s anger was fueled by reports that the subpoenas were for obtaining information about his business dealings with Deutsche Bank, according to interviews with eight White House officials, people close to the president and others familiar with the episode. To Mr. Trump, the subpoenas suggested that Mr. Mueller had expanded the investigation in a way that crossed the “red line” he had set last year in an interview with The New York Times.
In the hours that followed Mr. Trump’s initial anger over the Deutsche Bank reports, his lawyers and advisers worked quickly to learn about the subpoenas, and ultimately were told by Mr. Mueller’s office that the reports were not accurate, leading the president to back down.
Mr. Trump’s quick conclusion that the erroneous news reports warranted firing Mr. Mueller is also an insight into Mr. Trump’s state of mind about the special counsel. Despite assurances from leading Republicans like Speaker Paul D. Ryan that the president has not thought about firing Mr. Mueller, the December episode was the second time Mr. Trump is now known to have considered taking that step. The other instance was in June, when the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, threatened to quit unless Mr. Trump stopped trying to get him to fire Mr. Mueller.
This morning, Trump denied that he ever wanted to fire Mueller at all. Had that been what he wanted, Trump tweeted, it would have already happened:
If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him. Just more Fake News from a biased newspaper!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
Would it, though? According to the NYT’s narrative, the decision got put off by Bloomberg’s eventual correction on the Deutsche Bank story. The original report claimed that Mueller had subpoenaed Trump financial records unrelated to the probe on Russian collusion, which would have crossed the “red line” that Trump had set earlier. A day later, Bloomberg had changed their reporting to show that Mueller’s subpoenas for Deutsche Bank were related to the case on Paul Manafort, not Trump. This was part of a week filled with media errors and retractions relating to the legal case; CNN, CBS, and ABC all had egg on their faces too at the time, with ABC’s so egregious that Brian Ross was barred by the network from reporting on Trump at all.
The question here is whether that deluge of “fake news” would have infuriated Trump to the point where he might have barked orders to get rid of Mueller before thinking better of the idea. Given Trump’s proclivity for issuing heated declarations only to back away later, that’s not so tough to believe. Today provides us another case in point. Remember yesterday when Trump told Russia to “get ready” as our bombs would be heading to Syria?
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Today, Trump had second thoughts about signaling his intentions:
Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
That doesn’t prove the NYT correct in this instance, but it’s not tough to imagine Trump demanding that his staff make his “red line” stick when it came to Mueller once he thought Mueller had crossed it. It’s also not tough to imagine Trump calming down and taking political stock of the situation as it changed. What is tough to imagine is that Trump stayed this angry at Mueller for as long as the NYT report suggests and never vented about it on Twitter. During the week in question, Trump vented about James Comey, the FBI, Peter Strzok in particular, the “witch hunt” in general, and bragged about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Not a word about Mueller or any specific complaints about the probe, not even a rebuttal to the erroneous Bloomberg report. That seems very out of character with Trump’s presidential patterns.
On one point, though, there is little doubt. If Trump really wants to fire Mueller, he has the authority to do it. The fact that it didn’t happen in December, and that it hasn’t happened in the wake of the Michael Cohen raid, strongly suggests that Trump really does grasp that there is very little upside in firing Mueller now, and that the best option is to ride it out to the conclusion — but not to assist Mueller in any way.