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Why has the story about Trump wanting to fire Mueller reappeared?

by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Image: Robert Mueller
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

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WASHINGTON — First the New York Times, then the Washington Post and then NBC News reported this big bombshell Thursday night: President Trump wanted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller back in June 2017 — but then backed off.

Trump, in Switzerland, responded to last night’s news: “Fake news folks, fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories.”

The stories have new details about the role that White House counsel Don McGahn played in pulling Trump back from the brink, as well as the fact that Trump “ordered” firing Mueller. But when you look back at the headlines and news from last June, it was pretty clear many thought Mueller was in possible danger.

  • June 12: "I think [Trump’s] considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option," said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of the conservative news outlet Newsmax, said on PBS.
  • June 13: The New York Times: "[T]he president soon began entertaining the idea of firing Mr. Mueller even as his staff tried to discourage him from something they believed would turn a bad situation into a catastrophe, according to several people with direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s interactions. A longtime friend, Christopher Ruddy, surfaced the president’s thinking in a television interview Monday night, setting off a frenzied day of speculation that he would go through with it. For now, the staff has prevailed.”
  • June 13: The headline in First Read: “Why Is Trump Acting So Spooked Over the Russia Investigation?”

So the question becomes: Why has this story reappeared? Conservative Bill Kristol has a theory: Some White House officials, including counsel Don McGahn, believe Trump might try again to fire Mueller — and want to send a warning. “[I]t's also true that unless the story came out now by accident, the sources (McGahn and allies) are probably worried Trump is about to try again to fire Mueller, and wanted to stir up a preemptive pushback,” Kristol tweeted.

On NPR this morning, conservative writer Noah Rothman speculated that McGahn might be headed out the door — and that people in his orbit wanted to remind Republicans and the public. "If Mr. McGahn is preparing to make an exit, then Republicans need to have a strategy to insulate the president from his own worst instincts."

Regardless of why this story has once again resurfaced, here is what we do know:

  • Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey for his loyalty in January 2017: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
  • Trump asked Comey to let go of the Michael Flynn investigation a month later: "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," the president said, per a memo Comey wrote about the meeting. "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
  • Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017 and told NBC’s Lester Holt two days later it had to do with the Russia investigation: "When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story."
  • Trump fumed about Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation – and White House officials tried to talk him out of that recusal: “Donald Trump's counsel and multiple other White House officials tried to talk Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of recusing himself from the Russia investigation, a senior U.S. official told NBC News, amid reports the effort was orchestrated by Trump himself.”
  • Trump wanted to fire Mueller: “President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive,” the New York Times wrote.

All of this behavior only makes sense if the president was fearful of the Russia investigation.

A reminder of the other headlines from back in early June 2017

  • June 1: NBC News: “The Trump administration was gearing up to lift sanctions on Russia when the president took office, but career diplomats ginned up pressure in Congress to block the move, two senior former State Department officials told NBC News.”
  • June 6: President Trump was frustrated with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, NBC’s Kristen Welker reported.
  • June 6: “The nation’s top intelligence official [Dan Coats] told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe,” per the Washington Post.
  • June 8: Comey testified on Capitol Hill that Mueller could very well be looking at obstruction of justice relating to the Michael Flynn case. “I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to try to understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.”
  • June 14: The Washington Post: The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice"
  • June 14: The Wall Street Journal: “President Donald Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey is now a subject of the federal probe being headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, which has expanded to include whether the president obstructed justice.”

The real immigration battle is now over LEGAL immigration

NBC’s Benjy Sarlin: “After years of high-profile debates over a border wall and a path to citizenship, the biggest obstacle to a bipartisan deal on DACA is quickly becoming legal immigration, an issue where President Donald Trump has presided over a monumental shift in the GOP's approach. Both sides have given ground elsewhere. A new proposal by the White House on Thursday would cede significant ground on "Dreamers," with a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million people brought to the United States illegally as children. It also asks for $25 billion for a wall, which Democrats (at least briefly) had already suggested they would fund to a substantial degree.”

More: “On legal immigration, though, the proposal puts them miles apart. It reflects a fundamental and growing ideological divide between Democrats and many Republicans who view immigration as a net good and Trump and his allies, who have depicted immigrants as an unwanted burden and threatening presence. The White House is currently demanding that a deal on DACA recipients eliminate the diversity visa lottery — which issues 50,000 green cards a year in countries with few immigrants to the United States — along with family immigration categories for siblings and parents.”

If Democrats and immigration advocates want to oppose Trump’s cuts to LEGAL immigration, they have some PR work to do — after the early battle was DACA and the border.

Trump’s first year as president — by the numbers:

Job approval rating

  • Trump: 39 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 50 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 82 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 60 percent (January 1994)

SOURCE: NBC/WSJ poll

Job approval with own party

  • Trump: 78 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 75 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 94 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 66 percent (January 1994)

SOURCE: NBC/WSJ poll

Job approval with opposing party

  • Trump: 8 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 11 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 70 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 43 percent (January 1994)

SOURCE: NBC/WSJ poll

Job approval with independents

  • Trump: 33 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 41 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 81 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 51 percent (January 1994)

SOURCE: NBC/WSJ poll

Unemployment rate

  • Trump: 4.1 percent (December 2017)
  • Obama: 9.8 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 5.7 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 6.6 percent (January 1994)
  • H.W. Bush: 5.4 percent (January 1990)

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Dow Jones increase/decrease since entering office

  • Trump: 19,785.06->26,392.79 (+33 percent)
  • Obama: 8,279.63-> 10,196.86 (+23 percent)
  • Bush: 10,581->9,840.08 (-7 percent)
  • Clinton: 3,256.00-> 3,895.34 (+20 percent)
  • H.W. Bush: 2,236.61-> 2,561.04 (+15 percent)

Total bills signed into law

  • Trump: 118
  • Barack Obama: 125
  • Bush: 137
  • Clinton: 208
  • H.W. Bush 243

SOURCE: Govtrack, NBC News

Total bill signed into law that weren’t commemorations/namings/appointments

  • Trump: 102
  • Obama: 80
  • Bush: 104
  • Clinton: 146
  • H.W. Bush: 138

SOURCE: Govtrack, NBC News

Executive-branch nominations confirmed by U.S. Senate

  • Trump: 304
  • Obama: 452
  • Bush: 534
  • Clinton: 471
  • H.W. Bush: 405

SOURCE: Partnership for Public Service

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