President Donald Trump insisted on Thursday that he never told former White House Counsel Donald McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller weeks after he was appointed in 2017 — an event reported in the media and described in Mueller's report.
"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," Trump wrote.
Trump's current and former attorneys have made the same claim in recent media appearances since the publication of Mueller's redacted report last week.
"I think the president simply wanted McGahn to call Rosenstein and have [Mueller] vetted," Trump's former attorney John Dowd told Fox News on Monday. Dowd added, "The president was entitled to do that."
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, told "Fox News Sunday" that McGahn was "confused" about what took place.
Those statements run counter to Mueller's nearly 450-page report, which detailed how McGahn received at least two phone calls with Trump in which the president "directed him to call" Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to have Mueller "removed."
The first of those calls took place on June 17, 2017, just days after The Washington Post reported the special counsel was investigating whether Trump had obstructed justice as part of its probe into Russian election interference.
McGahn recalled Trump said something along the lines of, "You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod," Mueller's report said. McGahn said he told the president he would see what he could do and did not act on the request.
Trump followed up on the request more directly in the second call, saying something like, "Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the Special Counsel" and "Mueller has to go," McGahn recalled, according to the report.
"Call me back when you do it," McGahn recalled Trump telling him, the report said.
In response, McGahn decided he would resign "because he did not want to participate in events that he described as akin to the Saturday Night Massacre," Mueller wrote. McGahn ultimately did not do so.
After Trump's demand was reported in the news media, he denied ever making it and insisted McGahn dispute press reports, Mueller wrote. Trump said he merely wanted McGahn to inform Rosenstein of Mueller's supposed conflicts of interest — conflicts that McGahn and other advisers told Trump were "silly" and "not real," the report said.
Mueller wrote that Trump's denials were "contrary to the evidence and suggest the President's awareness that the direction to McGahn could be seen as improper."
The "evidence shows that the President was not just seeking an examination of whether conflicts existed but instead was looking to use asserted conflicts as a way to terminate the Special Counsel," Mueller wrote.
In August, after news first broke of McGahn's upcoming departure from the White House, Trump again raised the issue, tweeting that he "liked Don, but he was NOT responsible for me not firing Bob Mueller or Jeff Sessions."
After Mueller's report was released, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed McGahn to testify before the committee — a move that Trump called "ridiculous" on Wednesday.
“We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. "These aren’t, like, impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020."
Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, said Trump and his legal team's strategy on McGahn further prevents "any possible claim" of executive privilege over his potential House testimony. Any such claim would already be difficult because McGahn was allowed to speak with Mueller and his portion of the report wasn't redacted, she said.
"Trump personally attacking McGahn's credibility and the version of events put forth in the report should demolish any possible claim of executive privilege he might have had," Rocah said. "Under the law — and common sense and fairness — you cannot say something is shielded by a privilege but then publicly dispute those facts you are trying to shield."
On the broader issue of whether Trump obstructed justice, Mueller wrote in his report that if his investigators "had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state."
"Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him," Mueller wrote, later adding that Trump's "efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, whose legal advice has found a receptive audience in the Oval Office, said the rationale for Trump and his legal team's McGahn strategy — particularly, seeking to prevent him from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee — is simple: "They are satisfied with the status quo."
"They think they won the Mueller battle in the court of public opinion," Dershowitz told NBC News in an email. "And they don’t want to give further ammunition to the Dems."