As Donald Trump was doing his best to appear statesmanlike on Thursday — wining and dining business chiefs in Davos — fresh revelations once again turned Washington’s attention to the issue that has dogged the first year of his presidency: the investigation of potential links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
It emerged on Thursday that Mr Trump last summer ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the Russia investigation special counsel. He reversed course after Don McGahn, the White House counsel, threatened to resign, according to the New York Times.
But while he dismissed the story as “fake news”, the revelation amplifies the suspicions that the president has sought to thwart the Russia investigation.
Ty Cobb and John Dowd, the two defence lawyers hired by Mr Trump to deal with the probe, had repeatedly denied that he ever considered firing Mr Mueller. Mr Trump himself said “no, never” when asked in October if he had contemplated the move.
Mr Trump has already been accused of trying to interfere with the Russia investigation. The fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who was running the probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that Mr Mueller now leads, last year told Congress that the president had asked him for “loyalty” and had urged him to go easy on Trump adviser Michael Flynn.
Mr Comey interpreted the comments as a plea to drop an investigation into the retired general, who had lied about conversations he held with a Russian official.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee which is investigating the role Russia played in the election, said the new revelation showed “the Nixonian lengths this president is prepared to go to protect himself”.
Many Republicans have privately expressed concern that Mr Trump might fire Mr Mueller, resurrecting images of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre when Richard Nixon ordered the dismissal of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, a move that propelled the impeachment proceedings against Nixon.
Timothy Naftali, former director of the Nixon presidential library, said White House officials had for weeks tried to convince Nixon not to fire Cox before he ordered the move. “The question now is how long can an equally impetuous and unstable president be contained by his White House if he wants an independent investigator stopped.”
Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar at George Washington University, said the reports about trying to fire Mr Mueller were “deeply troubling” and that Mr McGahn had appeared to save the president from himself. Most worrying, said Mr Turley, was that Mr Trump had considered such a “self-defeating” move, which “would have resulted in exponential increase in the risk to himself and his administration”.
He said the attempt to fire Mr Mueller was “clearly material” to any investigation into obstruction of justice, but did not prove that obstruction occurred.
“People are once again overplaying the legal significance. There is no question that this order would fit within the narrative of obstruction of justice [espoused by critics of the president],” said Mr Turley. “However, it is not in itself a criminal act or even clearly an act of obstruction.”
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks that Mr Mueller is coming towards the end of his investigation, and there have been reports that he wants now to interview the president.
Mr Trump on Wednesday said he was “ looking forward” to testifying, subject to advice from his lawyers, and that the meeting could happen within a few weeks.
Jacob Frenkel, a criminal lawyer, said it was premature to conclude that the end was in sight, since Mr Mueller could re-interview everyone in the case after speaking to the president.
“There is a tendency for every piece of information reflecting the president’s words that have bearing on the investigation to be interpreted as the tipping point piece of evidence,” said Mr Frenkel.
“It is certainly something that, if there was a big tapestry, the special prosecutor would see as one of the colours or threads, but as a standalone piece of evidence, it does not meaningfully advance the investigation.”
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