President Donald Trump often ran up against a wall as he furiously sought out ways to kill special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. It was a wall erected by his own appointees.
Mueller put it this way in his report: “The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out his orders or accede to his requests."
Notably, early in his presidency, Trump pleaded with then-FBI Director James Comey to go easy on National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Comey ignored Trump’s request, and Flynn later pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about contact he had with a Russian ambassador.
Here is a look at other aides’ resistance, according to Mueller’s report.
A call from Camp David
During his 21 months as White House counsel, Don McGahn frequently found himself at odds with Trump. One such episode followed publication of a Washington Post article in June 2017 that said Mueller was investigating whether Trump had attempted to obstruct justice, prompting Trump to lash out on Twitter.
Three days after the story appeared, the president called McGahn from Camp David and urged him to contact Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to argue that Mueller had conflicts of interest that precluded him from serving as special counsel. McGahn recalled Trump saying something along the lines of, “You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod.”
McGahn didn’t contact Rosenstein. And Trump called back.
“Mueller has to go,” Trump told McGahn during the second call, and again urged him to contact Rosenstein. “Call me back when you do it.” McGahn told investigators that he said no to this request, but then gave Trump the impression that he would call Rosenstein. He did so, he told investigators, because he just wanted to get off the phone.
A letter to boost the boss
Weeks into office, Trump demanded that a top aide, K.T. McFarland, write an internal letter to provide him with cover as scandal flared around Flynn.
Trump had been forced to fire Flynn after news broke that Flynn had lied about his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, falsely saying they hadn’t talked about U.S. sanctions against the country.
The president asked McFarland to put in writing that he had not instructed Flynn, her superior, to bring up sanctions with the ambassador. McFarland, not knowing if Trump was telling her the truth about that, “declined” to write the letter, according to the Mueller report.
About the same time, McFarland was more compliant with another request. At Flynn’s order, she called the Post to knock down an article reporting there been talk of sanctions between Flynn and the ambassador. Mueller said McFarland knew better, but misled the Post anyway.
Trump later nominated McFarland, a former analyst for Fox News, to be U.S. ambassador to Singapore, but she withdrew her name after her confirmation was stalled in the Senate.
McGahn’s June 2017 stalemate with the president resurfaced in late January 2018, when the New York Times reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to have the Justice Department fire Mueller. The newspaper claimed that McGahn refused to follow Trump’s order, and instead threatened to resign.
“Fake news, folks. Fake news,” Trump told reporters in response to the story. “A typical New York Times fake story.”
Behind the scenes, though, Trump urged McGahn — through their respective attorneys — to release a statement denying that he’d been told to have Mueller fired, or threatened to resign. McGahn refused, telling White House staffers that while he hadn’t told Trump that he planned to resign, the rest of the story was accurate.
Trump told then-staff secretary Rob Porter that McGahn was a “lying bastard” and needed to write a letter — “for our records” — making clear that Trump had never told him to have Mueller fired. McGahn again refused to comply, but the matter wasn’t settled. Trump revisited the issue during an early February meeting with McGahn at the Oval Office, urging him to issue a “correction.”
McGahn wouldn’t budge, so Trump began complaining about McGahn’s tendency to take notes.
“Lawyers don’t take notes,” he said. “I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
McGahn explained to the president that he took notes because he was a “real lawyer" and note-taking wasn’t a bad thing.
Who wants to be attorney general?
Trump’s unhappiness with Attorney General Jeff Sessions festered for months after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, opening the door to Mueller’s involvement as special prosecutor. In May 2017, Trump called Sessions at home and asked his attorney general to “unrecuse” himself — and instead direct the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute Hillary Clinton. Sessions told investigators he listened to what Trump had to say, but did not respond or follow through on either matter.
That July, the president began to consider possible replacements for Sessions. Trump asked Porter whether he thought Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand was tough and “on the team” — and if she would want to become attorney general and oversee Mueller’s investigation. Trump encouraged Porter to get in touch with Brand and gauge her interest, and asked Porter on several occasions whether he’d spoken to her. Porter felt uncomfortable with the task, and never contacted Brand.
She resigned in 2018 and accepted a corporate job with Walmart. Porter quit the same year after he was accused of domestic abuse.
According to the report, the president also asked a close adviser — former campaign director Corey Lewandowski — to apply pressure to Sessions. The president wanted Lewandowski to tell Sessions, despite his recusal, to deliver a speech saying that Trump was being treated unfairly by Mueller and that Sessions was going to limit his probe to future election interference.
Unhappy with the assignment, Lewandowski did nothing. When Trump repeated the request, Lewandowski asked Rick Dearborn, a White House aide, to deliver the instructions. “Dearborn was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through,” Mueller’s report said.
Sessions finally quit last November.