President says claims he demanded Mueller be fired are 'fake news'
US President Donald Trump demanded the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June but backed down after White House lawyer Don McGahn threatened to resign, according to a 'New York Times' report that Trump quickly dismissed in Davos yesterday as "fake news".
The newspaper reported that Mr Trump demanded Mr Mueller's firing just weeks after the special counsel was first appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Mr Trump pushed back against the report, without addressing the specific allegation.
"Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical 'New York Times' fake stories," Mr Trump told reporters.
Mr 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.
Mr Trump argued at the time that Mr Mueller could not be fair because of a dispute over golf club fees that he said Mr Mueller owed at a Trump golf club in Sterling, Virginia. The president also believed Mr Mueller had a conflict of interest because he worked for the same law firm that was representing Mr Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
The response from Democrats was nearly immediate. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that if the report in the 'Times' was true, Mr 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," he said.
The report comes as Mr Mueller moves ever closer to interviewing Mr Trump himself. On Wednesday, the president said he would gladly testify under oath - although a White House official quickly said afterwards that Mr Trump did not mean he was volunteering to testify.
Last June, when Mr Trump was considering how to fire Mr Mueller, the special counsel's probe 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 adviser George Papadopoulos, and ultimately turn him into a co-operating witness.
Since then, Mr Trump has largely stopped talking about explicitly trying to fire Mr Mueller, but has instead shifted to accusing Mr Mueller and his team of being biased and unable to complete a fair investigation.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump adviser Rick Gates were charged by Mr Mueller with criminal conspiracy related to millions of dollars they earned while working for a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian political party.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn agreed to co-operate with investigators in a plea deal revealed two months ago. Mr Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI.
Mr Mueller's investigators have been focusing their inquiry on questions surrounding Mr Trump's firing of Mr Flynn and also his firing of former FBI director James Comey.
They recently began negotiating the terms of a possible interview with Mr Trump.