Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: January 25, 2018 Guest: Richard Blumenthal, Robert Bauer
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, "ALL IN": That is "ALL IN" for this evening. Don`t forget to like us on Facebook, Facebook.com/AllInWithChris.
THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts now.
Good evening, Rachel. Well, that`s a hell of a story.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Yes, I had a really nice show planned.
HAYES: Exactly. I bet you did. I watch your show. It`s always nicely planned.
MADDOW: Thank you very much. Tonight`s show, the one that was planned before 20 minutes ago is going to be performed for Susan in my PJs at 3:00 in the morning when I get home and she`ll be the only one that sees it.
HAYES: I know how that goes. Goodbye.
And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
You know, I did have a perfectly good little show planned for tonight. I`ll act it out with puppets for like Susan and the dog and they can tell me whether or not it`s good or whatever. It will never make air because boom, again, again.
This time, it`s "The New York Times`" Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman reporting from Washington. Headline: Trump ordered Mueller fired. Now, note the past tense there. This is not the president ordering the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller tonight. This is a report tonight from "The Times" that says the president tried to fire him this past summer, went so far as ordering it, but it didn`t happen.
Essentially, the glitch appears to have been that the president was not interested in doing the firing himself. He told the White House counsel to do it for him. The White House counsel said no and that stopped it. So, that`s the rest of the headline. Trump ordered Mueller fired but backed off when White House counsel threatened to quit.
That`s the headline, here`s the guts of it. Now, important thing to know right off the bat is that the sourcing here is four people, four people told of the matter. So, here`s how they start. According to four people told of the matter, last June, President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation. The president ultimately backed down, though, after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.
This West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have fired -- excuse me, the first time Mr. Trump has known to have tried to fire the special counsel, which makes me think were there other times he tried and failed to fire the special counsel? This West Wing confrontation marks the first time he was known to have tried to fire the special counsel.
You know, at this point, you`re asking yourself, OK, well, the president is being investigated for obstruction of justice by Robert Mueller who he didn`t succeed in firing. Does Robert Mueller in his ongoing investigation know about this incident when the president tried but didn`t succeed in firing him? Does Robert Mueller know about this episode?
According to "The Times", yes. Mr. Mueller learned about the episode in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice. Now, remarkably, "The Times" has details on what grounds, what premise the president was going to cite for firing Robert Mueller.
Now, in terms of the timing here, they say this happened in June. Robert Mueller was only appointed in May. So, this is the month after Mueller was hired and the president was reportedly going to make a case that Mueller had to be fired because he had conflicts of interest, conflicts of interest that were so serious, he was disqualified from doing this job.
Now, I have to tell you from a distance, just strategically, that`s a terrible move, right? You`re president of the United States. You`re being investigated by special counsel who`s been appointed by the Justice Department to look into the Russia thing, it is a terrible strategy to fire that special counsel on the basis of him having personal conflicts of interest. Partly because those conflicts of interest need to be a really big deal in order to convince anybody that`s really why you want to fire him.
But even if you can persuade people, those conflicts of interest are a really big deal and that`s why you want to fire the special counsel, well, then what? If you`ve come up with an argument there are personal things about this one particular man that require him to be fired from that job, that disqualify him from that job, all you`re doing is setting up the Justice Department to replace him with a different person, to appoint a different special counsel who doesn`t have the same conflicts of interest but does have the same powers, the same team and access to all the same evidence that Mueller had.
So, it`s a bad move to pick spurious, apparent personal conflicts of interest as the means or the premise that you`re going to use for firing a special counsel. But that is apparently what the president tried to do and "The Times" has details as to how he was going to try to do it.
Quote, amid the first wave of reports Mueller was examining a possible obstruction case, the president began to argue that Mueller had three conflicts of interest that disqualified him from overseeing the investigation.
One, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia had prompted Mr. Mueller, FBI director at the time, to resign his membership. See, the whole plot to destroy the Trump presidency is about a disgruntled former golfer who didn`t like greens fees and he held onto the grudge for years. That was claim one.
Claim two, the president also said Mueller could not be impartial because he had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented the president`s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. That will be the law firm WilmerHale.
Finally, the president said Mueller had been interviewed to return as the FBI director a day before he was appointed special counsel in May. Which tells you that President Trump thought he was imminently qualified to interview for being FBI director, which kind of undercuts all the other ones.
I mean, why any of those, particularly the last one, would be reason enough to fire a special counsel, I don`t know why the president would think that or if somebody advised him this was going to work. But according to "The Times" tonight, those were going to be the president`s arguments and then you get to the drama.
And I don`t want to over state this too much but to be honest with you, this is something that I`ve noticed. There have been a lot of stories that have broken over the past week or two that cast White House counsel Don McGahn as the super hero who is saving the republic. This is one of those stories where Don McGahn, White House counsel, is the only man standing between America and the abyss.
Here`s how it plays in this story night. Quote: After receiving the order to fire Robert Mueller, the White House counsel Don McGahn refused. He refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel saying that he would quit instead.
Quote: McGahn disagreed with the president`s case. He also told senior White House officials that firing Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Trump`s presidency and would incite more questions about whether the White House was trying to obstruct the Russia investigation. McGahn also told White House officials that Trump wouldn`t follow through on the dismissal on his own. The president then backed off.
So, this is -- this is amazing stuff in "The New York Times" tonight. The story being reported here tonight from "The Times" is that the president concocted a detailed but probably weak case for firing Robert Mueller the month after Mueller was appointed special counsel, June of last year, and he was going to say he had personal conflicts of interest on the basis of some not particularly strong claims about Mueller as a golfer and Mueller as somebody who they considered to come back to run the FBI.
So, having concocted this case about Mueller`s supposed conflicts of interest, the president then ordered -- I mean, the word in the piece was ordered, the president ordered the White House counsel Don McGahn, fire him. Call the Justice Department and have them dismiss Robert Mueller.
Now, in the real world, presumably, what that would have meant would be Don McGahn calling up the Justice Department, specifically speaking to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right? You don`t talk to the attorney general because he`s recused from everything having to do with the Russia investigation. That`s how we got Mueller in the first place.
So, instead, he`d have to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, hi, Rod, it`s Don up at the White House, I got to tell you, you got to fire Bob Mueller. He`d tell Rod Rosenstein to fire Robert Mueller. Then, presumably, Rod Rosenstein would refuse to do so. Rod Rosenstein has said publicly under oath in Congress that if he was ordered to fire Robert Mueller for anything other than good cause, he would refuse to do so.
So, in the real world, if this had really happened, McGahn would call Rosenstein and say fire Mueller, Rosenstein would say no, and then Rosenstein would be fired and then they would work their way down until they found someone who was willing to actually fire Mueller, ala, Richard Nixon Saturday night massacre.
According to this reporting in "The Times" tonight, though, that didn`t happen because right there in the White House, Don McGahn, the president`s White House counsel, said, no, I won`t make the call and I will quit if you insist that I must. But then there is the personal stuff, because after saying, I`ll quit if you insist, according to this reporting. Then Don McGahn basically called the president a chicken, right? Look at that line, McGahn also told White House officials Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own.
And he didn`t. He told somebody else to fire Mueller. The guy said, no, I`m not doing it and then apparently he told other people at the White House, watch, don`t worry, he`s not going to do it himself. And you know what?
The president we know knows how to use a phone. If he did want to fire the special counsel, there is no reason that he couldn`t have just called the DOJ himself, right? At least I think. We can check that out.
But this is a remarkable report that the president gave the order for his White House counsel to fire the special counsel but his White House counsel said no, and then there is this one other little nugget right at the end of the piece, quote: another option that Mr. Trump considered in discussions with advisors was dismissing the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and elevating the department`s number three official Rachel Brand to oversee Mr. Mueller.
Again, that is something the president would likely have had to do that very day or night if this order had been acceded to, if McGahn had, in fact, called he told him to fire Mueller for no good reason. I don`t know why they were considering pulling out Rosenstein, firing Rosenstein, elevating Brand in the first place, but that is another option the president kicked around but did not ultimately pull the trigger on it.
Joining us now is Michael Schmidt, Washington correspondent at "The New York Times" and the co-author of this very interesting new report.
Mr. Schmidt, I wish you lots more sleep in your next life.
MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES (via telephone): Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: Let me ask if I`ve correctly conveyed what`s in your piece and if I`ve left out anything that you think is important.
SCHMIDT: Yes, I think that Don McGahn is a central figure in this, that the American public may not appreciate. Don McGahn was involved in the Comey firing. Don McGahn in lobbying Attorney General Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He was asked by the president in June to fire Mueller. He`s a central player in all these things and it`s a remarkable part of the story that sort of gives us insight into how the president tried to use his lawyers in ways that apparently he was sort of afraid to do himself.
MADDOW: Because Mr. McGahn`s role in so many of these key moments, as you just described is being more and more exposed to the public. We`re getting more and more information including a recent remarkable report that one of Mr. McGahn`s deputies reportedly lied to the president about the president`s ability to fire James Comey specifically to try to maneuver the president away from that option.
I have to wonder about the president`s relationship with Don McGahn and the fact that McGahn is still there as White House counsel, it has to be a strain. It has to at least be a drama to have him working in the White House every day in this incredibly important job given the reporting about the conflicts with the president on these important matters.
SCHMIDT: That`s the thing. McGahn`s deputies basically misled the president to tell him that he didn`t have the authority to fire the FBI director without cause because they were afraid of what the president would do. It seems like time and time again, there are examples of the aides or lawyers trying to stop him from doing things they believe will hurt him or his presidency. You have to remember, this was in June, just a month after Comey was fired and it was clear that did not go over well and that was a huge problem for them.
And once again, here you are in the month of June and the president saying let`s get rid of Mueller. I think there was concern about, well, the Republicans are not going to -- they lost the Democrats but they certainly, the Republicans on the Hill were not going to take well to that. Bob Mueller is respected on both sides of the isle and I think there was a big effort to try and stop it.
MADDOW: Michael, you described this as happened in June of last year. I`m struck by the timing there because that`s the month after Mueller was appointed special counsel. This is very early on.
Do you know thinking about what might have provoked this order from the president, if there was something specific that led him to take this dramatic action?
SCHMIDT: Well, there was a lot going on at the time because there were reports in the press about how Mueller had hired a bunch of Democrats. And they -- the prosecutors were folks that had given money to Democrats. That was something that really unnerved the president.
But what I find interesting is that the president`s friend, Chris Ruddy, went on television in June and said that the president was considering firing Mueller. That wasn`t true. That Ruddy was wrong, but it looks like he was truly speaking the truth there when he went out and said that.
MADDOW: Do we know if the -- you mentioned that at the time the president`s legal team was led by his long-time personal lawyer in New York, Marc Kasowitz, around the time that this all was happening. Do we know if the president was sort of came up with this plan including the justifications for firing Mueller on his own? Was he receiving other competing legal advice apart from Don McGahn saying no, in terms of people who weren`t advising him to do this?
SCHMIDT: I don`t know. I think many times the president believes he`s his best spokesman, his best political advisor and his best lawyer. So, I wouldn`t be surprised if the president was out there thinking this was a good idea himself. I don`t think there were many White House officials that thought this was the best way to proceed with the special counsel to get rid of him. I don`t think that they thought that would be a measure that would help the president, and I have yet to find anyone in the White House or elsewhere that thought that that was a good idea.
MADDOW: Michael, one last question for you. I`m struck by the timing, excuse me, the wording in the second paragraph in your piece says this West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel.
Does that -- are you deliberately implying there might be other times?
SCHMIDT: No, it`s just the first time.
SCHMIDT: As journalist in this story, especially when we learn about something for the first time, we like to note it and say, you know, this is the first time about this or whatever. This is the first time we know about that. If the president was willing to do that in June, was he willing to do it other times? I don`t know.
But this was the first time for that and, you know, as we go along, we try to note whether this is the second or third or fourth or whatever, but for this one, this was the first.
MADDOW: I lied and said that was my last question. I do have one other.
SCHMIDT: Whatever you want.
MADDOW: In terms of Don McGahn as the central figure in this story other than the president, there has been a lot of reporting recently as we are just discussing about McGahn`s role in the key moments in this scandal, particularly around the justice issues and these key firings, Michael Flynn, James Comey, now this attempted firing of Robert Mueller.
Is there any sense in which some of this news about Don McGahn might be driven by his own concern about his own legal liability? We know he`s been interviewed by the special counsel. We know he`s retained his own private counsel in this matter.
Is Don McGahn worried? Do we have reason to believe he`s concerned that he may be a target rather than a witness of the Mueller investigation?
SCHMIDT: I`ve seen no indication that McGahn himself is under investigation in this. What we have seen a lot of is that McGahn is a central witness in and figure in all of this because he can provide insight into what president was thinking from a story perspective. I find McGahn`s position incredibly interesting because this is a skilled Washington lawyer who had to take the whims of a president and try to keep them legal and try to carry them out. And time and time again, we learn about different anecdotes and incidents where he was trying to take a square and put it in a round --
MADDOW: Round peg square hole, one of those.
SCHMIDT: Square hole or whatever. Yes, screwed that one up. That is pretty remarkable in this whole thing is how did McGahn balance this interest between his client and what was aboveboard, what was ethical and what was legal.
MADDOW: Michael Schmidt, Washington correspondent for "The New York Times" with -- along with Maggie Haberman, an incredible scoop tonight. Thank you so much, Michael. Congratulations on this scoop.
SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: I want to just reset for a second. What "The Times" is reporting tonight again from Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman is that in June, the month after Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, the president, maybe the president alone, we don`t know if he received any sort of advice or encouragement but he came up with an argument, a three-part argument that Robert Mueller had personal conflicts that meant he could not be special counsel, that he could continue to serve in that role, that there was a dispute over fees at the Trump National Golf Club when he was a member and FBI director in Virginia years ago, that he had been associated with the law firm WilmerHale that once represented Jared Kushner and interviewed to possibly return as FBI director in the Trump administration.
None of those seem like terrible, personal conflicts that would be seen by, you know, ethics folks at the justice department as a reason somebody couldn`t serve as special counsel. Those are all presumably be things that the Justice Department knew about Robert Mueller when they appointed him special counsel in the first place. Nevertheless, the president on that basis, on the basis of those alleged conflicts of interest ordered his White House counsel to fire Mueller.
And according to this new reporting tonight, the reason that didn`t happen is because his White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit if the president insisted that he do that and then the president backed off.
This is remarkably reporting because we know Robert Mueller who is still in his job is investigating the president for obstruction of justice. Obviously, had the president gone ahead with this, this would have seriously raise concerns, a new raft of concerns about potential obstruction of justice by this president.
What does it mean, though, that he tried to do it, that he issued the order and then got cold feet?
Joining us now is Barbara McQuade. She was an Obama era U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan.
Barbara, thank you very much for being with us tonight. I appreciate you being here on short notice, on a story you didn`t know you`d be talking about until it broke.
BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: You bet, Rachel. It`s fun.
MADDOW: So, on obstruction, I`m struck by Don McGahn`s position here, right? Don McGahn, all of a sudden, is the subject of a lot of news stories in terms of him having restrained the president from his worst or potentially most unconstitutional impulses around the Russia investigation and obstruction of justice.
That said, Don McGahn is also described as having been dispatched by the president to go lobby the attorney general, that he should ignore ethics advice that he got from the Justice Department and not recuse himself in the Russia matter. And he should stay in charge of that investigation. Don McGahn is very much involved in all of these things.
This one that`s been reported tonight, would this be a particular legal concern in terms of the liability of the president or the liability of anybody else involved in giving this order in terms of firing Mueller as obstruction of justice?
MCQUADE: Well, I think again, it`s one more piece in the puzzle that Robert Mueller is trying to put together as to whether President Trump had a corrupt motive in trying to stop investigation into Russia. And so, why did he want Robert Mueller out of it? The theories that you mention, his basis all sound really quite minimal and if not pretextual.
And so, what`s his real reason for wanting to pull Robert Mueller out of it? As you pointed out, if Robert Mueller is fired, it seems he would be replaced by someone else. Yet, when the president fired Jim Comey, he talked about what a great relief it was that he was gone.
And so, he does seem to think getting rid of the leader might get rid of the investigation. So, it kind of fits in that pattern of his behavior in the firing of Comey. So, I think that it is one more piece perhaps in the puzzle to prove corrupt intent to establish obstruction of justice.
MADDOW: We don`t know if the president was advised by external counsel or advised by anybody else in the White House when he was making, when he was issuing this order about Mueller.
We don`t know if anybody else helped him prepare this or if any lawyer told him that this was a good argument, a good way to get rid of Mueller, something that would really stand up both in legal terms and in political terms. In terms of how this might play against the president, whether this does go to, as you said, another piece of puzzle, establishing his intent, would it help him out if it turns out somebody told him this was a good idea and somebody advised him to do this?
MCQUADE: I suppose, you know, he could say that he was hearing from -- you know, I won`t speculate on who -- but other individuals in the White House because it wasn`t his own idea. Of course, it`s his own thoughts that matter. There is a jury instruction that goes something like because we can`t read a person`s mind for you to determine their intent, you should look at the totality of the circumstances. Everything that was said, everything that was done.
So, I suppose if President Trump were to say this wasn`t my idea. I was just communicating something someone else had suggested to me, I suppose he could then distance himself from this piece of the puzzle.
MADDOW: Barb, let me ask you one last piece of this. In terms of the person drama here, what we`ve got in terms of this report is the president telling the White House counsel to make this call to the Justice Department, that they should dismiss Robert Mueller.
If the president had wanted to make that call himself, could he do so? Would he have to involve the White House counsel in order to fire Mueller this way?
MCQUADE: No, not at all. I think he certainly could have picked up the phone and done it himself. I know under the regulation, it`s the attorney general and this instance, the deputy attorney general who is acting who has the power to fire him. I think President Trump probably could directly fire him himself.
And so, it`s interesting that he`s seeking to use intermediaries. One wonders why he does that. Maybe it`s just a matter of not wanting to get his hands dirty. Maybe it`s a matter of throwing up a trial balloon and seeing what McGahn thought about it before he went forward with it. So, not clear.
But the answer to your question is yes, he certainly could have done it himself.
MADDOW: Right, and that last point is very important if it was a trial balloon and it was put up in June, and Don McGahn shot it down, why is it that now in late January, we are learning about the floating and shooting down of this trial balloon. Just a remarkable story.
Barb McQuade, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan -- thank you very much for being with us, Barb. I really appreciate it.
MCQUADE: Thanks, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. Again, we`re absorbing this breaking news that has just come out from "The New York Times". The president ordered his White House counsel to fire Robert Mueller. It didn`t happen tonight, it happened last June, the month after Robert Mueller was hired as special counsel.
The president appears to have come up, reportedly came up with a list of three reasons, three conflicts of interest that disqualified Mueller from serving in that job as Barb McQuade said there, they don`t seem particularly strong, these reasons, these alleged conflicts of interest. They may even appear to be pretextual, meaning this is just the excuse we`re going to use.
But in any case, the drama here is that his White House counsel that serves as his White House counsel, Don McGahn, reportedly told the president, no, I won`t make that. And if you make, I will quit in protest.
A remarkable story in itself, remarkable threat in terms of firing the special counsel and a remarkable mystery as to why this is coming out now.
We got a U.S. senator who is very much in the middle of the investigation, particularly on the obstruction part of this, who is here live in studio with us on this next.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: -- broken by "The New York Times" last hour, the president ordered Robert Mueller fired last year in June, but backed off when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the president`s order.
Now again, this was broken last hour by "The New York Times." "The Washington Post" has now confirmed their version of this story. Their headline they just moved is this, Trump moved to fire special counsel Mueller in June bringing the White House`s top lawyer to the brink of quitting.
This is not -- again, first reported by the times now being matched by "The Post." "The Post" says President Trump sought the firing of Robert Mueller last June shortly after the special counsel took over the investigation into Russian interference in 2016 election. He backed off only after White House counsel McGahn threatened to resign over the move. The extraordinary showdown was confirmed by two people familiar with the episode. "The Times" reporting again was four people who were told of the matter.
According to the Washington post, McGahn did not deliver his resignation threat directly to Trump but was serious about his threat to leave. This incident could become part of Mueller`s examination of whether Trump has taken steps to try to stymie the investigation.
Joining us now live in the studio, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been aggressive on this story, particularly on the issue of obstruction of justice and the freedom of this investigation to follow the facts.
Senator, thank you for coming in. I really appreciate it.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank you, Rachel.
MADDOW: Let me get your top line reaction to this news. This is not the president acting to fire Robert Mueller now in case people are tuning in and freaking out. These are reports that this happened last year, shortly after he was appointed.
BLUMENTHAL: These reports are absolutely stunning, deeply frightening because they show again that the president will stop at nothing to protect himself from this obstruction of justice investigation and they are evidence. Those conversations with McGahn and apparently there are four sources, so four people have some basis to believe that they are true are further evidence of obstruction of justice. There is a credible case of obstruction of justice against the president of the United States.
MADDOW: Now, is it -- you`re saying that mindful of the fact that this order that the president reportedly made was not carried out. So, he didn`t -- he tried to fire Robert Mueller. He obviously didn`t fire Robert Mueller.
Does that make a difference to you in terms of whether or not this is an actionable obstruction case?
BLUMENTHAL: If that were the only fact, the only piece in the mosaic of the proof, it might have less weight. But remember, he fired Jim Comey just one month before.
BLUMENTHAL: So, firing was very much on his mind as a means to rid himself of the so-called Russia thing. He bragged to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak that he was so relieved that he had fired Comey and thereby stop the Russia investigation. Clearly, now, the tactics have shifted. It`s his surrogates who are attacking the special counsel, the surrogates in Congress, the defenders, who are launching assault on the FBI and law enforcement generally.
But we have now a constitutional crisis looming and that`s the reason why we need to protect the special counsel with legislation that I`ve offered, along with a number of Republican colleagues and Democrats to make sure that the special counsel is protected in this investigation.
MADDOW: Now, you described that as a constitutional crisis. Clearly, that would be a conflict with the president exerting his ability to, you know, change -- direct his deputy attorney general or his attorney general to change the rules of the Justice Department to abolish the concept of a special counsel. I mean, there`s ways that a president legally could shut that down, could shut down the special counsel`s investigation.
Why would that be a constitutional crisis and not just a fight?
BLUMENTHAL: It would be a constitutional crisis because it would involve the president exceeding his authority under the Constitution, violating statutes and potentially confronting Congress, which would hold him accountable to obey the law. And also, as we know from U.S. versus Nixon, the tapes case where the president`s evidence was subpoenaed by the special counsel and he refused to provide it until ordered by the Supreme Court, that kind of confrontation may be in our future as well.
MADDOW: Do you think that these reports tonight, first from "The New York Times" matched by "The Washington Post", do you think these will reinvigorate interest among your colleagues including Republican colleagues in potentially passing legislation to try to protect the special counsel? This is something that came forward as a bipartisan idea and then Republican support for it withered very quickly. Is it possible something like this might give that new life?
BLUMENTHAL: Great question, and it is the key question because my colleagues interest somewhat resided as the president became less bellicose himself about the special counsel.
MADDOW: That`s true. He went through a change on that.
BLUMENTHAL: In July, he was talking publicly about possibly firing the special counsel, and not having tried to do so as Michael Schmidt observed, this report is the first that indicate he actually took action.
But I think my Republican colleagues will now be more interested. They ought to be more interested. In fact, I`ll put it very bluntly. They have a constitutional responsibility to act now and there is enough here that really requires them to look in the mirror and say now is the time to do my duty to the United States of America and protect the rule of law.
MADDOW: We have seen a change in the president`s statements about the investigation, statements about Robert Mueller over time. I think -- since he brought on his current legal team, it seems like he`s advised to stop making aggressive statements about Robert Mueller personally. He still denounces the Russia investigation writ large as a hoax and a terrible thing, but he stopped talking about Mueller in I think bellicose and partisan terms he used to talk about him before.
Republicans have also gone through a transformation over the course of the past year. Your Republican colleagues more so in the House but also in Senate, who have started to talk about the FBI as being a troubled organization, an institution that can`t be trusted to fairly carry out this kind of investigation.
I -- I don`t know what changes that back. I don`t know what cause that shift among your Republican colleagues. When I look at this list of alleged conflicts of interest for Robert Mueller that the president was going to put forward when he made this order last year, I can imagine Republicans in Congress embracing this, and saying, oh, there was a fees dispute when he was a member of Trump`s golf club, let`s -- you know, let`s impeach him.
It`s hard for me to gauge where they are and what their limits are.
BLUMENTHAL: A couple of points, first of all, the supposed conflicts of interest are preposterous, absolutely ludicrous as a reason to fire the special counsel. They don`t even pass the smell test as we say in the legal profession.
Second, I am hard put to believe that Donald Trump on his own sitting at his desk concocted or constructed this list of potential conflict. Somebody is giving him, in quotes, advice. And third, you`re right, that my colleagues in the Congress may use this in very clever and conning way as a pretext for continuing their all-out assault on Mueller, his team, and the FBI.
They have put law enforcement in their sights in a way that I think is utterly and totally shameful and disgraceful. Think of the party that was most favorable to law enforcement and law and order and the war on crime now is attacking relentlessly and consistently the premiere law enforcement agency of the world, the FBI, not without its fault, but composed of some of the most skilled, dedicated professionals in fighting crime in the world.
So, I think this onslaught -- to answer your question -- will continue very vigorously and relentlessly and we`re in for a fight.
MADDOW: One last question for you, Senator. You`re a member of Senate Judiciary Committee. You`re obviously former prosecutor yourself. When you say that you doubt that the president came up with this list of alleged conflicts of interest for Robert Mueller on his own, that he must have had some help in preparing this case that`s now been reported in the "New York Times", this case that was supposed to under lay his order to fire Mueller, which he issued last June, if that case against Mueller was cooked up, if that order to fire Mueller was really about trying to shut down the investigation, therefore wasn`t a legitimate action by the president, it was obstruction of justice.
If somebody else working in the White House helped him cook that up, helped him construct that case, is it the -- should the Judiciary Committee, should Mueller himself be looking into somebody else having participated in that attempt, in that possible obstruction of justice?
BLUMENTHAL: The answer is unequivocally yes to both questions. The Judiciary Committee should be looking into it because obstruction of justice and the threat to law enforcement is directly within our responsibility and secondly, remember, this remarkable news report is not news to Robert Mueller.
BLUMENTHAL: He knows about it. He has been talking to the very people who have talked to these reporters and no doubt he is investigating those individuals who may have assisted, aided and abetted in this potential obstruction of justice.
MADDOW: Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Senator, thank you for being here and being here in person as this news broke tonight. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
MADDOW: Thank you.
All right. Much more to come together. I`ll be talking with a former White House counsel, somebody who has previously had Don McGahn`s job, although never faced an order like this before. That`s coming right up.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: So, we`ve got a blockbuster new report tonight from "The New York Times", which says that last June, President Trump gave the order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller about what stopped him was Don McGahn, the White House counsel, Don McGahn threatening to quit his job rather than carry out the president`s order and then the president backed down, and that`s why Mueller wasn`t fired.
It makes Don McGahn like the picture of heroic self-sacrifice here, right? You know, I don`t know, I could -- before not that long ago, I couldn`t have picked McGahn out of a lineup. I know nothing about him.
But this is not the first story in the past few weeks that really paints White House counsel Don McGahn as kind of a super hero, right, painted him at least a very remarkably flattering light. Just yesterday, NBC News had an interesting rich scoop about the dramatic White House departure of Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn.
In that piece, it was reported that as soon as Don McGahn found out that Mike Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI, he did the right thing and briefed the president, briefed chief strategists Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus. It was reported that Don McGahn didn`t know if Flynn lied, never asked Flynn if had lied to the FBI. Didn`t know Mike Flynn had lied to the FBI until after Mike Flynn had been fired, so therefore Don McGahn couldn`t possibly have told anybody else for him lying to the FBI, or he couldn`t have lied about it himself, because he definitely didn`t know about it, definitely.
If you prefer a more proactive good guy narrative for your White House counsel, there was a report last month that White House counsel Don McGahn was so concerned about Mike Flynn, he researched federal law about lying to federal investigators and illegally negotiating with foreign governments and he warned the president about Mike Flynn`s possible violations.
In that telling, Don McGahn was also a kind of hero doing his due diligence and if his boss decided not to act, that`s not Don McGahn`s fault. A lot of story telling going on. A lot of it can`t all be true, right? Itself contradictory but always spins McGahn in the best possible way if you have to get him doing two opposite things to tell two good stories about him.
Well, now, new reporting from "The New York Times" matched in "The Washington Post" that Don McGahn threw himself in front of a moving train to stop firing of the special counsel last summer. I don`t know what we`re to make of the great but somewhat contradictory coverage about the White House counsel. We do know McGahn is represented by a very, very, very good lawyer named William Burck.
There`s been some controversy over the fact that William Burck also represents Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon and that`s a lot. But that`s something that special counsel Robert Mueller as himself signed off on and said it isn`t a conflict. If the special counsel is okay with the same lawyer representing Don McGahn and Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon -- that maybe might suggest neither of those three is a target of Mueller`s inquiry but whatever is going on with employment as White House counsel and public profile, which is getting very much fleshed out, we really don`t know what is driving it. But it is a theme to keep an eye on as he emerges from the central figure in dramatic story telling how this president approached in some cases tried to stop the investigation that haunts his presidency.
Joining us now is former White House counsel to president Obama, bob bower. Mr. Bauer, thank you for joining us on short notice tonight. Appreciate it.
ROBERT BAUER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT OBAMA (via telephone): Sure, of course.
MADDOW: We`re told tonight in the "New York Times" that as White House counsel, the president directed Mr. McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, to call the Justice Department and see to it Mueller was dismissed. Does that structurally right to you in terms of how that would have to work in a White House context?
BAUER: Well, I assume it would work in a number of different ways. But his as the report suggest, his thought was that he would communicate with the department of justice by the White House counsel and delay his direction that way and that certainly is one plausible avenue for him to express that order.
MADDOW: Is it also seem plausible to you that in that circumstance, the White House counsel would be in position to say over my dead body, no sir, I won`t accept that. I won`t do it. Is that the kind of -- I know the White House counsel isn`t the president`s personal lawyer. It`s the lawyer that represents the presidency and not the president as a person. Is that kind of conflict feasible to you?
BAUER: Yes, it would be. Again, based on the facts from "The Times" he had two objections. One he didn`t think were particularly compelling and certainly reported I would have to agree with that judgment. And secondly, thought that whatever the president thought about the merits of the order, he would make matters significantly worse for himself by firing or having Mueller fired.
So, on both accounts, when it seems the counsel tried to talk him out of it and a last-ditch matter, the president persisted, he would say, I can`t carry that order out.
MADDOW: The president giving this order, even though it reportedly was not, evidently was not carried out but if this reporting tonight is true, that the president directed his White House counsel to do this and then it was stymied, his efforts were stymied, does the president still have obstruction of justice or form of potential legal liability around this decision, at having given the order, even though it wasn`t carried out?
BAUER: I don`t know relative to other factors how strong this weighs into obstruction. I`d have to say one thing that draws immediate attention to the reason the president gave. I mean, the first one is his belief Mueller may be prejudice against him because he resigned from a country club after an increase in fees. That has a strongly pretextual feel to it. One can`t imagine that`s one reason why the president believes Mueller couldn`t be trusted to carry out the investigation with integrity.
So, it doesn`t color the president in a favorable light which means maybe on the more central evidence that the special counsel may be considering obstruction, I think the president is considering himself to do no favor and losing the benefit of the doubt in the course of this investigative inquiry. That`s speculation, of course, but that`s one way in which the story could play unfavorably for the president.
Certainly introduces a significant element of awkwardness into negotiations that are happening between the president`s lawyers and Mr. Mueller over the terms of a potential interview.
MADDOW: I will say that what you just raised there about the thinness of the allegations that were going to be used to justify the firing of Mr. Mueller, this golf fees dispute for example, it`s the second time tonight we heard a distinguish legal mind described that as having a pretextual feel. What`s wrong legally with offering up a plainly stupid or thin transparent or obviously untrue justification for doing something? If the president has it in his power to fire anyone he wants to, why does it matter he would offer a plainly false reason for doing so?
BAUER: Well, the question is one of intent. Was the intent a corrupt intent? That`s one element of an obstruction case. And if, in fact, of the attempt that he asserts is pretextual, it tends to put more attention, focused more attention on what his intent might have been.
It reminds me a little bit of the first set of explanation sort of the firing of Jim Comey, which was that the president was disturbed by the way Mr. Comey treated Hillary Clinton. That obviously was not something anyone really believed he was worried about, and then it turned out that wasn`t the reason at all. I don`t think that, again, did much for his communicating successfully that he had any sort of, you know, genuinely law enforcement centered intent as opposed to a self-protective intent.
MADDOW: And a self-protective intent, of course, is a big part of understanding what obstruction is versus lawful action.
Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Obama, joining us tonight on short notice with this breaking news. Thank you, sir. It`s a really pleasure to have you here.
BAUER: It`s a pleasure. Thank you. Bye-bye.
MADDOW: We continue to absorb this information. Again, "The New York Times" breaking it first, Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman got the scoop tonight. "The Washington Post" has followed it up. "The Post" is now confirming that Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June that Don McGahn threatened to quit in order to stop the order from being enacted.
More to come tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: -- that the president tried to fire Robert Mueller last year on the basis of purported personal conflict of interests. If you don`t buy the idea that the president thought his presidency was at risk over golf fees at his country club, there were things going on in the news at that time that might conceivably have also factored into the president`s decision to try to fire Mueller at the time.
The president`s order to fire Mueller reportedly came in June, I don`t know what sparked it. But on June 3rd, the "A.P." had reported that Mueller`s investigation was expanding to include the separate criminal probe involving campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and that it could further expand to investigate the roles of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the deputy attorney in firing James Comey.
On June 7th, Comey released a statement to the media ahead of his testimony in Congress where he claimed that the president had demanded Comey`s loyalty and pressured him to drop the Russia investigation.
A week later, on June 14th, we learned from "The Washington Post" that Mueller was investigating the president for possible obstruction of justice. The following day, June 15th, "The Post" reported that the special counsel was investigating the finances and business dealings of the president`s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other Trump associates. So I don`t know what might have sparked this.
On June 16th CNN reported that Mueller had built up his team to include 13 lawyers, including top investigators, leading experts, seasoned attorneys who represented major American companies, attorneys who have worked on cases ranging from Watergate to the Enron fraud scandal. That might send a shiver down your spine.
That was all breaking around the time that President Trump, according to the "New York Times" tonight, tried to have the FBI special counsel fired and, in fact, ordered that he be fired. But no, apparently the explanation for why he was being fired was they had an argument over golf fees.
Joining us now is NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Mr. Beschloss, thank you for joining us on short notice. Much appreciated.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: My pleasure, Rachel. Those must have been pretty high golf fees to get something like that.
MADDOW: Well, yes, also to get Robert Mueller to carry a year`s long grudge that was leading him to destroy the Trump presidency over it.
BESCHLOSS: Deeply convincing.
MADDOW: What does this say to you? This story tonight, obviously, has a lot of historical --
BESCHLOSS: Donald Trump once again is ripping a page out of the Dick Nixon playbook. Nixon made some of the same arguments that Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, a McGovern Democrats and Kennedy Democrats, Nixon haters on his staff, Nixon complained that Cox swearing in with all people Ethel Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, so he said this could not be a fair investigation.
In retrospect, we know that what Nixon was afraid of was that Cox was about to get the White House tapes which we now know show that Richard Nixon was guilty of impeachable offenses. So, what this should tell us tonight by Mike Schmidt in "The New York Times" about what happened last June is Donald Trump has to be still intensely interested in finding some way of firing Robert Mueller. We`ve got to be very much on alert about that tonight.
MADDOW: Do we know -- obviously, part of the analogy with Nixon here is complicated by the fact that his White House counsel, John Dean, went to jail.
MADDOW: In Watergate.
I`m trying to think about the Saturday Night Massacre, what would have happened if the dominos started falling inside the Oval Office, rather than at the Justice Department which they did when he tried to fire that special prosecutor.
BESCHLOSS: It was in dramatic context because Nixon had a chief of staff, Alexander Haig, the general, who went to Elliott Richardson, the attorney general, and said you have to fire Archibald Cox, this is an order from your commander in chief. And Richardson said, I`m sorry we have different views of the public interest. He resigned rather than fire Archibald Cox.
We haven`t yet seen that kind of profile in courage. Although as you were saying, Rachel, some of what you were saying about Don McGahn looks pretty good.
MADDOW: Yes, Don McGahn is staking himself against Al Haig in this historical allegory, I`d want to be the Don McGahn character here.
BESCHLOSS: Things we never expected to see.
MADDOW: Yes --
BESCHLOSS: And hope not to.
MADDOW: Yes, yes. And hope that we`ll wake up and it`s not happening.
NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss joining us at the very last moment, I really appreciate you being here on short notice, sir. Thank you.
BESCHLOSS: Be well. Talk soon, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. That does it for us tonight. I had a whole other show. I will save it for you. Maybe.
See you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
Good evening, Lawrence.
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