The Slatest

Why Did Don McGahn Save Bob Mueller’s Job and Why Did We Learn About It Now?

Don McGahn buttons his suit jacket as he gets into an elevator.
Don McGahn gets into an elevator in the lobby at Trump Tower on Nov. 15, 2016, in New York.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The New York Times reported on Thursday that President Donald Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in June but was stopped by White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II. According to the bombshell story, sourced to “four people told of the matter,” McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out an order from the president firing Mueller.

“Amid the first wave of news media reports that Mr. Mueller was examining a possible obstruction case, the president began to argue that Mr. Mueller had three conflicts of interest that disqualified him from overseeing the investigation,” the Times reported.

The story tracks closely with what has been previously reported about Trump’s approach to the special counsel’s office around the summer of last year. On June 8, former FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that Trump had attempted to get Comey to drop his own investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. (You’ll remember that Trump fired Comey in May, Mueller was appointed not long after that, and soon began looking into the possibility that the president obstructed justice in the Russia case.)

One day after this testimony, Trump told reporters that Comey was lying under oath to Congress and that he’d “be glad” to tell the real story to Mueller’s investigators. Lying to federal investigators—or Congress, as Comey was accused of doing—would of course be a crime. (Flynn himself has since pleaded guilty to lying to investigators probing the Trump campaign’s possible connection to Russian interference in the 2016 election.)

Three days after Trump promised to talk to Mueller, his pal Chris Ruddy floated the possibility that the president might actually just want to fire the special counsel instead. Now we’ve learned that this was around the time that Trump was making plans in private to do exactly that, a proposal that was reportedly only foiled by McGahn.

Why is this timeline relevant? Well, for one, the news broke one day after Trump again told reporters that he “would love” to speak with Mueller “as soon as possible.” Again, lying to a federal investigator, particularly about something like alleged obstruction of justice, is a crime.

Which brings up a few theories for why this story was leaked when it was, several months after the incidents in question allegedly happened.

1. Maybe this leak is part of McGahn’s effort to again prevent Trump from firing Mueller. Under this reasoning, perhaps our Wile E. Coyote president has once again panicked after his latest headline-generating promise to speak with Mueller—a promise it seems he doesn’t actually want to fulfill—and is looking for a way out. If he were again talking behind the scenes about firing Mueller, floating this story might be one way for McGahn to attempt to again put a cork in it.

2. Another theory put out on Twitter is that McGahn leaked the story as a way of publicly floating to Mueller that he wants to cooperate with the investigation. Under this premise, a leak would be McGahn’s way of lessening any possible culpability for potential obstruction of justice in his own role in the firing of Comey and his effort to block Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation. This seems implausible to me, because why wouldn’t he just do that through his lawyers directly to Mueller?

3. Someone other than McGahn has leaked this story either to punish the White House, or perhaps to again try to save Mueller under the rationale of theory No. 1. The Times story is sourced to four people who were told about it. There’s no indication one of them was definitely McGahn. Steve Bannon, who recently had a high-profile falling out with the White House, might have reason to spill such news at this point. He has also come under scrutiny in recent days from both Congress and Mueller and could have reason to try to protect himself.

All of this raises another interesting question. Why would McGahn try to save Mueller’s job in the first place? A few more theories:

1. Maybe he thought it would be politically catastrophic to Trump’s presidency to (again) patently obstruct a criminal investigation into his campaign, associates, and administration. Mueller is after all a long-respected Republican public servant who was first appointed head of the FBI by the last Republican president, George W. Bush. Perhaps McGahn believed firing him would be a step too far, even for previously loyal Trump Republicans.

2. Maybe McGahn felt firing Mueller would spark a constitutional crisis and he didn’t want that. Hypothetical mass protests over the head of state claiming essentially authoritarian powers to end criminal investigations into himself and his associates would not be inconceivable, nor would an eventual impeachment controversy.

3. Maybe the lawyer McGahn actually appreciates the rule of law and didn’t want to go down in history as one of the men who helped bring about making it subordinate to the will of Donald Trump.

4. Maybe McGahn believed that this president and anyone who might help him obstruct a criminal investigation will eventually have to face the retribution of a true prosecutor such as Mueller.

Ultimately, maybe McGahn was just looking to cover his own ass.

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Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor.