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NYT: Trump ordered Mueller fired in June Transcript 1/25/18 The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell

Guests: David Frum, Harry Litman

Show: THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL Date: January 25, 2018 Guest: David Frum, Harry Litman

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Rachel. Come on over and do your whole other show. Just hand it to me. I`ll just read it.

Rachel, among the things I never expected to hear from you is I would want to be the Don McGahn in that -- in a story.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST, "TRMS": Yes.

O`DONNELL: But in tonight`s story, it is Don McGahn who prevented what would have been an even bigger event than the firing of James Comey.

MADDOW: Given what`s been reported about the role of Don McGahn in the White House and the role of his deputies, remember the reporting that one of his deputies lied to the president to try to maneuver him out of firing James Comey when he wanted to, it is just trying to imagine the relationship between Don McGahn and the president right now as all of these news stories are coming out showing us that Don McGahn is the guy who`s saving us from the abyss. It`s very hard to imagine what it`s like inside the White House.

O`DONNELL: And more confirmation of Michael Wolff`s book, through Bannon rephrasing it for him, saying, I can fire Mueller, I can fire Mueller. And Bannon ranting against the idea of what the president thinks he can accomplish by firing Mueller.

MADDOW: Yes, this is -- you know, we will eventually -- when the movie is made of this, when you write the best selling book about this somewhere down the road, my friend, we will learn more about the sourcing of the stories and the strategy behind the sourcing of the stories why we`re learning about it in January if it was in June, why there are four sources who are willing to talk to "The Times" about this, the kind of worries the individual White House staff have about their own liability on these things. In hindsight, this will become clear. But right now, we`re just living through it minute by minute, trying to understand how serious this stuff is.

O`DONNELL: And if one person, one witness tells the special counsel something, that might not leak out. But this is a story that more than one witness has information about.

MADDOW: Yes.

O`DONNELL: So, you have, you know, Reince Priebus, former White House chief of staff, he was chief of staff at the time this was happening so he would know this was happening. He has spoken to the special prosecutor, Don McGahn has spoken to the special prosecutor, they all have lawyers.

There are dozens of people who know this has been told to the special prosecutor, and the leak capacity out of all these legal teams surrounding these people is enormous.

MADDOW: Yes, once again we`re finding out there`s something really important and really dramatic that the whole country has been on the lookout for a very long time and not only did it happen but Mueller has known about it for months and there was no peep about it until tonight.

Again that`s a very important part of the story.

O`DONNELL: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: Thanks, Lawrence. Appreciate it.

O`DONNELL: Well, as I just said, in Michael Wolff`s book, "Fire and Fury", Steve Bannon says, quote: If he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker.

On June 12th, on this program, we reported that White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, April Ryan, was reporting that night that there was what she called mass hysteria, that was her phrase, that night, June 12th in the White House, because the president was considering firing special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

And now, seven months later, the "New York Times" is confirming April Ryan`s report and adding that the president actually ordered the firing of the special prosecutor.

In the stunning lead of its breaking news stories tonight, "The New York Times" says President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special prosecutor overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.

And in the second paragraph, "The New York Times" reports Mr. Mueller learned about it in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry about whether the president obstructed justice.

So, Robert Mueller knows. Robert Mueller knows that the president tried to fire him. Robert Mueller wants to interview the president in his investigation into possible obstruction of justice by the president, and he knows that one of the pieces of evidence of obstruction of justice is that the president tried to fire him. The president`s firing of FBI Director James Comey provoked the appointment of the special prosecutor, who is investigating the president for obstruction of justice because of the firing of James Comey.

And now we know the president tried to fire the special prosecutor himself. And now Donald Trump knows that the special prosecutor knows that the president tried to fire him. Is the president still eager tonight, as he says he was last night, to be interviewed by the special prosecutor who knows the president tried to fire him?

The president has probably known that since December 2nd. Probably known. Could have known since December 2nd, that Robert Mueller knows that the president tried to fire him because December 2nd is the day when we discovered publicly that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, had been interviewed by the special counsel.

"The Washington Post" reported on December 2nd, that McGahn had been interviewed by the special prosecutor on November 30th. And Donald Trump know that he ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special prosecutor, and so, he should have known that his White House counsel, having refused that order, which no White House counsel has done probably since Richard Nixon`s White House, refusing an order, that Donald Trump should have know that that would come out, that would come up if Don McGahn was interviewed by the special prosecutor.

But it`s not clear that this president of the United States understands that one plus one equals two, so it`s entirely possible that this president of the United States did not discover, until tonight when we all discovered that the special prosecutor knows that Donald Trump tried to fire him. And the special prosecutor knows that because Don McGahn would, of course, be forced to tell him that, as would other senior White House officials who have been interviewed by the special prosecutor.

Reince Priebus was the White House chief of staff in June when this happened. He has been interviewed by the special prosecutor. He no doubt told the special prosecutor that the president ordered the firing of the special prosecutor. Steve Bannon has not yet been interviewed by the special prosecutor but we know what he`s going to say, he`s going to say what he said in Michael Wolff`s book, the president repeatedly said, I can fire him. I can fire Mueller, that`s all over the book.

Here`s one passage. Bannon`s tone veered from ad absurdum desperation to resignation. If he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker. Why not? Let`s do it? Let`s get it done, why not? What am I going to do? Am I going to go in and save him? He`s Donald Trump. He`s always going to do thing.

It turns out Don McGahn went in and saved him from firing Robert Mueller. But is that enough to save him from charges of obstruction of justice?

In a moment, we`ll be joined by Joy Reid, David Cay Johnston and others. But, first, we`re joined by Harry Litman, former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general under President Clinton. He`s now a professor at the University of California. Also with us, David Frum, senior editor for "The Atlantic" and author of the "New York Times" best selling book "Trumpocracy", and Ari Melber, MSNBC chief legal correspondent and host of "THE BEAT"

And, Ari, where does this newsstand in the timeline of the story?

ARI MELBER, MSNBC CHIEF LEGAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the biggest thing to happen in the Russia probe since Donald Trump fired Jim Comey, which, of course, set off the hiring of this special prosecutor, who is now someone Donald Trump ordered to fire. This is not I thought about it, this is not I mused, this is not we talked about it over dinner. He called his White House counsel, he ordered this firing to take place.

If you had a different person in the job maybe it would have taken place. If you had a different person in the job they would have retired on the spot. Given what is an unlawful order. He had the middle position, someone who said this is so terrible, potentially unlawful, I won`t do it, I might resign, but also I`m not going to resign.

Why is it coming out now? I think you alluded to it in your report, I think it`s fascinating. It seems to be coming out because we are getting up the orchard in the interviews and there are people who may have liability, people who could go to jail for participating in an ongoing conspiracy of obstruction and apparently some of them want the "New York Times" to know they weren`t in on it. And if they were asked to do it, they didn`t do it. And that`s because the heat was on.

O`DONNELL: Harry Litman, your reaction to this news tonight?

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Ari is dead on. Huge story.

But remember, Mueller already has a wealth of evidence about obstruction and the biggest point here is just one more entry in the long list against Trump. It shows corrupt intent, makes it very difficult for him to try to concoct another explanation.

I think it is heartening that McGahn stopped it in its tracks, although he`s doing what he`s supposed to do. He`s looking out for the interest of Trump, who here once again was trying to use the Department of Justice as his own personal lawyers. He doesn`t seem to know the basic difference between law enforcement and a personal staff.

O`DONNELL: Let`s listen to the president in August. This is two months after -- remember when you listen to this -- this is two months after he ordered the firing of the special prosecutor. Let`s listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Mr. President, have you thought or thought about, considered letting the dismissal of the special prosecutor? Which I think that Bob Mueller could do that would send you in that direction?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven`t given it any thought. I`ve been reading about it from you people, you say, oh, I`m going to dismiss him. No, I`m not dismissing anybody. I want him to get on with the task.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: David Frum, in August, we says I haven`t given any thought. We now know two months earlier he ordered it.

DAVID FRUM, AUTHOR, "TRUMPOCRAC": Well, consider this, how possible is this, that Donald Trump gave the order in June to fire Bob Mueller, was dissuaded by his White House counsel, spoke as you said in August, and that was it, he never thought about it again. It was all behind him.

Isn`t it more likely that there`s been repeated attempts and murmurs and threats and that maybe he`s thinking about it at this very moment and this White House has been cracking under the pressure of trying to contain the president. And we have heard that his lawyers again and again have told him this thing is going to be wrapped up soon, is going to wrapped up by Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year`s Day. Has Donald Trump figured out they were deceiving him in order to contain him?

O`DONNELL: Ari, "The Washington Post" has a follow-up an important here in their reporting on the story, saying that Don McGahn did not say this directly to the president.

MELBER: Right.

O`DONNELL: He did not deny the president directly. He did it through someone else. Now, that would be in any white house, the White House chief of staff. So that would make Reince Priebus a direct conduit of this information and obviously a witness to all of this, and Reince Priebus has already talked to the special prosecutor.

MELBER: I think it`s a reasonable inference that he said it to the chief of staff or a family member because we know they play dual roles. You certainly don`t go down the chart and call junior people and bring them into this mess.

So, Lawrence, I think it`s a small number of people that could reasonably be part of that. They have liability if Bob Mueller`s investigation finds that they may have been part of the ongoing obstruction if there was obstruction. That`s a legal conclusion, that`s what`s under investigation.

Another key point here that is very bad for Donald Trump, what everyone thinks of his management style and the way he talks and how often he lies, many of those things are not crimes. And so, many of the things that he does that people don`t like are not in any way criminal, however objectionable they may be in a democracy.

The difference here, why this is even potentially worse than the Comey firing, depending on what Mueller finds, is that the ignorance excuse no longer applies. There may be an excuse for the Comey firing that it was not technical legal obstruction, not a crime, because the president was so ignorant, so out of the loop, so misunderstanding of the rules, that he basically thought he was firing a toy gun and even if a bullet went of it, he didn`t know.

But now we have report this is week that more bullets came out, the pressure on the FBI director to move the deputy director who according to "Axios", the FBI director said he would resign over that, that`s a Saturday Night Massacre level of event . And number two, tonight`s breaking news that he tried to do it with Mueller, and McGahn threatened to resign.

That`s two Saturday Night Massacre level events after the Comey fire. So, even if you give him the benefit of the doubt at first, the ignorance defense is evaporating before our eyes.

O`DONNELL: Harry Litman, I`d like to put you in the position of the White House counsel when the president orders you to fire the special prosecutor. What would you have done? Would you have done anything differently than what Don McGahn did?

LITMAN: Look, I don`t think so. It`s really heartening that he stood up and makes a point here. Everyone has been thinking our only possible salvation is if congressional Republicans finally put country over party. But there is another source, another softer source here, which is professionals in Washington being able to stand up to Trump and say, we won`t do it. It`s the same thing we have in mind if he tries to fire Comey and I just want to --

MELBER: I have a slightly less charitable interpretation. I just want to jump in and say that`s possibly, that could be true and that would be great for Don McGahn. I do feel duty-bound to report, Lawrence, the alternative interpretation is that Don McGahn simply thought he was being asked to commit a crime, and to save himself, thinking if he called Rod Rosenstein and said, hey, will you help me obstruct the law, and Rod Rosenstein said, maybe, A, no, and, B, I have to call Robert Mueller and tell him what you`re asking me to do it and I won`t do it, that there may have been as much self-interest as public interest here. I`m not saying we know, but I certainly don`t think we can conclude yet exactly what the motivations were.

(CROSSTALK)

O`DONNELL: Harry, let me add this to what Ari just said. If Don McGahn had reason to believe that what the president was trying to execute was the crime of obstruction of justice, if, for example, there were prefatory remarks like I can`t have him investigating my personal finances, I can`t let him investigate a variety of things about me because there`s things there I won`t be able to survive, I`m going to have to fire him because I don`t want to go to prison -- take the dialogue all the way out there. At what point in the dialogue would the White House counsel have to consider himself the witness to a crime and require an action other than just resisting what the president wants to do?

LITMAN: Pretty early. This is really, as Ari says, this eviscerates the last defense, because Trump`s only -- we know the facts here. Trump`s only hope is to show there wasn`t corrupt intent. If he`s displaying it to the White House counsel, then his defense is totally demolished.

However, the White House counsel is Trump`s lawyer. So, it`s the same thing as if someone said it to a lawyer personally. But the law there is, you cannot participate in a fraud on behalf of the client. So if he`s really being recruited to, in fact, obstruct justice, yes, he has to think about himself as well.

O`DONNELL: David Frum, the scene --

FRUM: The White House counsel is the White House`s lawyer, not the president`s lawyer, right? There`s no attorney-client privilege. He`s supposed to put the interest of the presidency first, not the interest of the particular president.

LITMAN: That`s right.

O`DONNELL: David, this is part of what we`ve been reading about in Michael Wolff`s book in "Fire and Fury" he said it was the president`s claim he could do something, I could fire him, he said say. It was another of his repetitive loops, I can fire him, I can fire him. Mueller. The idea of a show down in which the stronger, more determined man prevails was central to Trump`s own personal mythology.

And, David, so this according to this perception of Donald Trump is absolutely consistent with his character, this kind of moment.

FRUM: And Don McGahn has not been showing himself a hero at other moments. I think Ari`s reading of this is shrewd. Don McGahn has not shown himself a hero through this presidency, he wasn`t a hero during the Comey firing.

O`DONNELL: We`re going to be joined now by David Cay Johnston and Joy Reid is making her way into the studio.

David, I know you`re with us. David, your reaction to this development tonight.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, FOUNDER, DCREPORT.ORG: Well, this advances the story a lot from last summer when April reported on it and Christopher Ruddy, a publisher who`s close with Trump, said that Trump was perhaps thinking about firing Mueller. Now you have a very clear story with four sources and two newspapers backing this up, that the president was proposing to do something which I think is clearly unlawful. You can do lawful things in an unlawful way and arguably advances a conspiracy involving this administration.

And this issue of the independence of the Justice Department`s prosecutors, this has a history that goes back to John Quincy Adams. But Donald doesn`t know any of this, doesn`t have any respect for law and he expects you to be loyal to him. This is in some ways not surprising. I think it`s a good question to ask, when are the principled Republicans going to start saying, we need to seriously look at this. There`s something amiss here.

O`DONNELL: Let`s go to June 12th. This is when as I said in the beginning of the show, April Ryan reported on June 12th that there was what she called mass hysteria in the Trump White House because the president was considering firing the special prosecutor.

David Cay Johnston just mentioned Chris Ruddy talking about this, he talked about it on June 12th, on the same day on PBS. Let`s listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS RUDDY, NEWSMAX: I think he`s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he`s weighing that option. I think it`s pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joy Reid, April Ryan says mass hysteria in the White House on June 12th, there`s Chris Ruddy a friend of Donald Trump`s has contact with him all the time saying on June 12th, yes.

JOY REID, HOST, "A.M. JOY": Yes.

O`DONNELL: He`s considering firing the special prosecutor.

REID: And for the "New York Times" just fishing for reasons to do it. According to "The New York Times", saying, looking at a dispute over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, that Mueller had been a member there. He`d be representing Jared Kushner another reason. So fishing for any reason he could to get rid of Mueller.

I think Ari made a point, there`s a question of whether Donald Trump is ignorant or whether he`s corrupt. I think the more information you get, you sort of lean toward corrupt. I mean, you can`t be that ignorant if you`re going just beyond the Russia investigation and saying we had disputes over fees at my golf club. And so, he needs to go. He`s looking for any reason it seemed to get rid of this guy.

And so, you Don McGahn, who`s not a hero. You know, Walter Shaub was tweeting about this tonight. It`s not as if he wasn`t trying to get Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself. Remember Don McGahn was part of that, too.

So you have Donald Trump trying to assemble around himself a protection force. And feel like all these attorneys around him need to protect him. Protect him from what if he really didn`t do anything, why did he need protection?

MELBER: Joy is adding a piece in the details. If those were real concerns, anyone working for the president, including a lawyer, could certainly explore them, nothing wrong with that. But if as you just said, there was, and Lawrence was alluding to this earlier, a prefatory remark of saying, no, Russia is on my mind, or I need to stop the probe for those reasons, or I need to protect my family finances, so go find me fake reasons for an unlawful firing, OK, now you have other people on the hook for potential obstruction.

If you`ll permit me, Lawrence, I brought one more aid since we were talking about where the rules are. These are the rules, it`s CFR DOJ rules, and they say only the attorney general or when recused, the deputy, may remove the special counsel and only for good cause that cause must be specified in writing, quote, in writing of the specific reason of his or her removal. If you start asking people, lawyers or others, to falsify those things, you`re asking a bunch of people to commit crimes.

So the list that Joy mentions, the question is, was it real or was it fraud? If it was fraud, that`s a good reason people want to get far away from that process.

(CROSSTALK)

O`DONNELL: Harry, the process would have been had to be Don McGahn communicating with Rod Rosenstein telling him to fire the special prosecutor, and that actually raises the other possibility of -- that is entertained at other parts in this story, is the president considering firing Rod Rosenstein, in fact, in order to get this done?

LITMAN: Right, exactly. Or order Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, everyone anticipates Rosenstein would resign, Rachel Brand would resign. We really do have Saturday Night Massacre analogies here, including this basic point of the White House counsel, this is a John Dean moment. There`s a cancer on the presidency.

And at this point, everybody does have to circle the wagons. They know history in the White House and they know Watergate very well and the analogies begin to abound at that point.

O`DONNELL: David Cay Johnston, the discussion of this would involve a significant number of people because when you think in any political office when everyone thinks -- someone thinks the office holder is about to make a mistake, they look for help wherever they can. Who can influence this person? Who can make him not do this?

And so, the likelihood that Jared Kushner was pulled in is extremely high. The likelihood the president`s daughter was pulled in on this is extremely high. It seems like part of the agenda the special prosecutor would have with all of them.

JOHNSTON: Right. You know, if you let Trump be Trump, not only is the there a chance you`ve committed a crime. But you`ll have Donald put himself not just in impeachment mode but going to prison.

There`s a historical point here and we shouldn`t lose sight of, after the firing of Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre, the judge issued an opinion in which he pointed out that it`s clear in American law that you cannot violate the regulation, one Ari just brought up, because you are president. So, McGahn would presumably know this, and in addition to protecting himself, which I think is the more reasonable interpretation of this, he would also understand this wouldn`t hold up.

And the three-week reads for attacking Mueller, I would not be surprised if that ended up in a courtroom that the judge would dismiss it as a frivolous, and about the worst possible thing a judge can ever say to a lawyer is you made an argument that`s frivolous.

O`DONNELL: Joy, one of the stunning things about the story is we`re talking about June. This is months after -- well after the firing of James Comey, when all of these arguments have been rehearsed in the White House. Steve Bannon in Michael Wolff`s book is arguing against the firing of Comey constantly with the president, it`s going on for a while. So, the president already has heard all of the reasons why you don`t do this before he then decides to do it again, and bigger.

REID: And to do it again for the most frivolous of reasons because he once worked for a law firm that once represented Jared Kushner or because he resigned from Trump International Golf Club. I mean, it`s a very thin reasons, or that he might have been considered the FBI director again. So he`s not even fishing for solid reasons. It has to be something based I believe on conduct, egregious enough that the special counsel is no longer qualified to be special counsel.

For him to reach for reasons that were essentially personal, he`s represented someone in my family, he resigned from my golf club means he was really grasping at straws. But I think you go back to the Occam`s razor question, why is he so determined that this person must go. It leads you to believe that there`s got to be a lot of fire behind the smoke that Mueller is dredging up.

O`DONNELL: Yes. And, Ari, it`s June, it`s a point when Robert Mueller`s stock is high with Republicans in Washington, especially most importantly Republican senators. It`s a different climate now where they`ve gone to some strange territory of conspiracy theory about everything. But in those days, you had Lindsey Graham, and all sorts of Republican senators as energetic defenders of Robert Mueller.

MELBER: Right, they had what Donald Trump`s lawyer called the expectation of a, quote, fact-based exoneration. If somebody comes in and you`re being investigated for something you didn`t do, and you think the facts rule out, then we hear this often when there are investigations, people say I`m really confident by the end I`ll be fine. That was the mood maybe outside the White House, that`s what some of his lawyers advise him.

For some reason, we don`t know the reason to be clear, for some reason, Donald Trump we now learned tonight couldn`t put up with that. He needed more and he tried to get it done and the only reason everyone didn`t look up on their TVs that night and see Bob Mueller was fired is because the lawyers around Donald Trump somehow intuitive that that would be worse than standing up to him.

O`DONNELL: Ari, Joy, Harry, David, don`t move. We`re going to squeeze in a break here and we`re going to be right back.

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Rachel. Come on over and do your whole other show. Just hand it to me. I`ll just read it.

Rachel, among the things I never expected to hear from you is I would want to be the Don McGahn in that -- in a story.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST, "TRMS": Yes.

O`DONNELL: But in tonight`s story, it is Don McGahn who prevented what would have been an even bigger event than the firing of James Comey.

MADDOW: Given what`s been reported about the role of Don McGahn in the White House and the role of his deputies, remember the reporting that one of his deputies lied to the president to try to maneuver him out of firing James Comey when he wanted to, it is just trying to imagine the relationship between Don McGahn and the president right now as all of these news stories are coming out showing us that Don McGahn is the guy who`s saving us from the abyss. It`s very hard to imagine what it`s like inside the White House.

O`DONNELL: And more confirmation of Michael Wolff`s book, through Bannon rephrasing it for him, saying, I can fire Mueller, I can fire Mueller. And Bannon ranting against the idea of what the president thinks he can accomplish by firing Mueller.

MADDOW: Yes, this is -- you know, we will eventually -- when the movie is made of this, when you write the best selling book about this somewhere down the road, my friend, we will learn more about the sourcing of the stories and the strategy behind the sourcing of the stories why we`re learning about it in January if it was in June, why there are four sources who are willing to talk to "The Times" about this, the kind of worries the individual White House staff have about their own liability on these things. In hindsight, this will become clear. But right now, we`re just living through it minute by minute, trying to understand how serious this stuff is.

O`DONNELL: And if one person, one witness tells the special counsel something, that might not leak out. But this is a story that more than one witness has information about.

MADDOW: Yes.

O`DONNELL: So, you have, you know, Reince Priebus, former White House chief of staff, he was chief of staff at the time this was happening so he would know this was happening. He has spoken to the special prosecutor, Don McGahn has spoken to the special prosecutor, they all have lawyers.

There are dozens of people who know this has been told to the special prosecutor, and the leak capacity out of all these legal teams surrounding these people is enormous.

MADDOW: Yes, once again we`re finding out there`s something really important and really dramatic that the whole country has been on the lookout for a very long time and not only did it happen but Mueller has known about it for months and there was no peep about it until tonight.

Again that`s a very important part of the story.

O`DONNELL: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: Thanks, Lawrence. Appreciate it.

O`DONNELL: Well, as I just said, in Michael Wolff`s book, "Fire and Fury", Steve Bannon says, quote: If he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker.

On June 12th, on this program, we reported that White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, April Ryan, was reporting that night that there was what she called mass hysteria, that was her phrase, that night, June 12th in the White House, because the president was considering firing special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

And now, seven months later, the "New York Times" is confirming April Ryan`s report and adding that the president actually ordered the firing of the special prosecutor.

In the stunning lead of its breaking news stories tonight, "The New York Times" says President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special prosecutor overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.

And in the second paragraph, "The New York Times" reports Mr. Mueller learned about it in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry about whether the president obstructed justice.

So, Robert Mueller knows. Robert Mueller knows that the president tried to fire him. Robert Mueller wants to interview the president in his investigation into possible obstruction of justice by the president, and he knows that one of the pieces of evidence of obstruction of justice is that the president tried to fire him. The president`s firing of FBI Director James Comey provoked the appointment of the special prosecutor, who is investigating the president for obstruction of justice because of the firing of James Comey.

And now we know the president tried to fire the special prosecutor himself. And now Donald Trump knows that the special prosecutor knows that the president tried to fire him. Is the president still eager tonight, as he says he was last night, to be interviewed by the special prosecutor who knows the president tried to fire him?

The president has probably known that since December 2nd. Probably known. Could have known since December 2nd, that Robert Mueller knows that the president tried to fire him because December 2nd is the day when we discovered publicly that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, had been interviewed by the special counsel.

"The Washington Post" reported on December 2nd, that McGahn had been interviewed by the special prosecutor on November 30th. And Donald Trump know that he ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special prosecutor, and so, he should have known that his White House counsel, having refused that order, which no White House counsel has done probably since Richard Nixon`s White House, refusing an order, that Donald Trump should have know that that would come out, that would come up if Don McGahn was interviewed by the special prosecutor.

But it`s not clear that this president of the United States understands that one plus one equals two, so it`s entirely possible that this president of the United States did not discover, until tonight when we all discovered that the special prosecutor knows that Donald Trump tried to fire him. And the special prosecutor knows that because Don McGahn would, of course, be forced to tell him that, as would other senior White House officials who have been interviewed by the special prosecutor.

Reince Priebus was the White House chief of staff in June when this happened. He has been interviewed by the special prosecutor. He no doubt told the special prosecutor that the president ordered the firing of the special prosecutor. Steve Bannon has not yet been interviewed by the special prosecutor but we know what he`s going to say, he`s going to say what he said in Michael Wolff`s book, the president repeatedly said, I can fire him. I can fire Mueller, that`s all over the book.

Here`s one passage. Bannon`s tone veered from ad absurdum desperation to resignation. If he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker. Why not? Let`s do it? Let`s get it done, why not? What am I going to do? Am I going to go in and save him? He`s Donald Trump. He`s always going to do thing.

It turns out Don McGahn went in and saved him from firing Robert Mueller. But is that enough to save him from charges of obstruction of justice?

In a moment, we`ll be joined by Joy Reid, David Cay Johnston and others. But, first, we`re joined by Harry Litman, former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general under President Clinton. He`s now a professor at the University of California. Also with us, David Frum, senior editor for "The Atlantic" and author of the "New York Times" best selling book "Trumpocracy", and Ari Melber, MSNBC chief legal correspondent and host of "THE BEAT"

And, Ari, where does this newsstand in the timeline of the story?

ARI MELBER, MSNBC CHIEF LEGAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the biggest thing to happen in the Russia probe since Donald Trump fired Jim Comey, which, of course, set off the hiring of this special prosecutor, who is now someone Donald Trump ordered to fire. This is not I thought about it, this is not I mused, this is not we talked about it over dinner. He called his White House counsel, he ordered this firing to take place.

If you had a different person in the job maybe it would have taken place. If you had a different person in the job they would have retired on the spot. Given what is an unlawful order. He had the middle position, someone who said this is so terrible, potentially unlawful, I won`t do it, I might resign, but also I`m not going to resign.

Why is it coming out now? I think you alluded to it in your report, I think it`s fascinating. It seems to be coming out because we are getting up the orchard in the interviews and there are people who may have liability, people who could go to jail for participating in an ongoing conspiracy of obstruction and apparently some of them want the "New York Times" to know they weren`t in on it. And if they were asked to do it, they didn`t do it. And that`s because the heat was on.

O`DONNELL: Harry Litman, your reaction to this news tonight?

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Ari is dead on. Huge story.

But remember, Mueller already has a wealth of evidence about obstruction and the biggest point here is just one more entry in the long list against Trump. It shows corrupt intent, makes it very difficult for him to try to concoct another explanation.

I think it is heartening that McGahn stopped it in its tracks, although he`s doing what he`s supposed to do. He`s looking out for the interest of Trump, who here once again was trying to use the Department of Justice as his own personal lawyers. He doesn`t seem to know the basic difference between law enforcement and a personal staff.

O`DONNELL: Let`s listen to the president in August. This is two months after -- remember when you listen to this -- this is two months after he ordered the firing of the special prosecutor. Let`s listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Mr. President, have you thought or thought about, considered letting the dismissal of the special prosecutor? Which I think that Bob Mueller could do that would send you in that direction?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven`t given it any thought. I`ve been reading about it from you people, you say, oh, I`m going to dismiss him. No, I`m not dismissing anybody. I want him to get on with the task.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: David Frum, in August, we says I haven`t given any thought. We now know two months earlier he ordered it.

DAVID FRUM, AUTHOR, "TRUMPOCRAC": Well, consider this, how possible is this, that Donald Trump gave the order in June to fire Bob Mueller, was dissuaded by his White House counsel, spoke as you said in August, and that was it, he never thought about it again. It was all behind him.

Isn`t it more likely that there`s been repeated attempts and murmurs and threats and that maybe he`s thinking about it at this very moment and this White House has been cracking under the pressure of trying to contain the president. And we have heard that his lawyers again and again have told him this thing is going to be wrapped up soon, is going to wrapped up by Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year`s Day. Has Donald Trump figured out they were deceiving him in order to contain him?

O`DONNELL: Ari, "The Washington Post" has a follow-up an important here in their reporting on the story, saying that Don McGahn did not say this directly to the president.

MELBER: Right.

O`DONNELL: He did not deny the president directly. He did it through someone else. Now, that would be in any white house, the White House chief of staff. So that would make Reince Priebus a direct conduit of this information and obviously a witness to all of this, and Reince Priebus has already talked to the special prosecutor.

MELBER: I think it`s a reasonable inference that he said it to the chief of staff or a family member because we know they play dual roles. You certainly don`t go down the chart and call junior people and bring them into this mess.

So, Lawrence, I think it`s a small number of people that could reasonably be part of that. They have liability if Bob Mueller`s investigation finds that they may have been part of the ongoing obstruction if there was obstruction. That`s a legal conclusion, that`s what`s under investigation.

Another key point here that is very bad for Donald Trump, what everyone thinks of his management style and the way he talks and how often he lies, many of those things are not crimes. And so, many of the things that he does that people don`t like are not in any way criminal, however objectionable they may be in a democracy.

The difference here, why this is even potentially worse than the Comey firing, depending on what Mueller finds, is that the ignorance excuse no longer applies. There may be an excuse for the Comey firing that it was not technical legal obstruction, not a crime, because the president was so ignorant, so out of the loop, so misunderstanding of the rules, that he basically thought he was firing a toy gun and even if a bullet went of it, he didn`t know.

But now we have report this is week that more bullets came out, the pressure on the FBI director to move the deputy director who according to "Axios", the FBI director said he would resign over that, that`s a Saturday Night Massacre level of event . And number two, tonight`s breaking news that he tried to do it with Mueller, and McGahn threatened to resign.

That`s two Saturday Night Massacre level events after the Comey fire. So, even if you give him the benefit of the doubt at first, the ignorance defense is evaporating before our eyes.

O`DONNELL: Harry Litman, I`d like to put you in the position of the White House counsel when the president orders you to fire the special prosecutor. What would you have done? Would you have done anything differently than what Don McGahn did?

LITMAN: Look, I don`t think so. It`s really heartening that he stood up and makes a point here. Everyone has been thinking our only possible salvation is if congressional Republicans finally put country over party. But there is another source, another softer source here, which is professionals in Washington being able to stand up to Trump and say, we won`t do it. It`s the same thing we have in mind if he tries to fire Comey and I just want to --

MELBER: I have a slightly less charitable interpretation. I just want to jump in and say that`s possibly, that could be true and that would be great for Don McGahn. I do feel duty-bound to report, Lawrence, the alternative interpretation is that Don McGahn simply thought he was being asked to commit a crime, and to save himself, thinking if he called Rod Rosenstein and said, hey, will you help me obstruct the law, and Rod Rosenstein said, maybe, A, no, and, B, I have to call Robert Mueller and tell him what you`re asking me to do it and I won`t do it, that there may have been as much self-interest as public interest here. I`m not saying we know, but I certainly don`t think we can conclude yet exactly what the motivations were.

(CROSSTALK)

O`DONNELL: Harry, let me add this to what Ari just said. If Don McGahn had reason to believe that what the president was trying to execute was the crime of obstruction of justice, if, for example, there were prefatory remarks like I can`t have him investigating my personal finances, I can`t let him investigate a variety of things about me because there`s things there I won`t be able to survive, I`m going to have to fire him because I don`t want to go to prison -- take the dialogue all the way out there. At what point in the dialogue would the White House counsel have to consider himself the witness to a crime and require an action other than just resisting what the president wants to do?

LITMAN: Pretty early. This is really, as Ari says, this eviscerates the last defense, because Trump`s only -- we know the facts here. Trump`s only hope is to show there wasn`t corrupt intent. If he`s displaying it to the White House counsel, then his defense is totally demolished.

However, the White House counsel is Trump`s lawyer. So, it`s the same thing as if someone said it to a lawyer personally. But the law there is, you cannot participate in a fraud on behalf of the client. So if he`s really being recruited to, in fact, obstruct justice, yes, he has to think about himself as well.

O`DONNELL: David Frum, the scene --

FRUM: The White House counsel is the White House`s lawyer, not the president`s lawyer, right? There`s no attorney-client privilege. He`s supposed to put the interest of the presidency first, not the interest of the particular president.

LITMAN: That`s right.

O`DONNELL: David, this is part of what we`ve been reading about in Michael Wolff`s book in "Fire and Fury" he said it was the president`s claim he could do something, I could fire him, he said say. It was another of his repetitive loops, I can fire him, I can fire him. Mueller. The idea of a show down in which the stronger, more determined man prevails was central to Trump`s own personal mythology.

And, David, so this according to this perception of Donald Trump is absolutely consistent with his character, this kind of moment.

FRUM: And Don McGahn has not been showing himself a hero at other moments. I think Ari`s reading of this is shrewd. Don McGahn has not shown himself a hero through this presidency, he wasn`t a hero during the Comey firing.

O`DONNELL: We`re going to be joined now by David Cay Johnston and Joy Reid is making her way into the studio.

David, I know you`re with us. David, your reaction to this development tonight.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, FOUNDER, DCREPORT.ORG: Well, this advances the story a lot from last summer when April reported on it and Christopher Ruddy, a publisher who`s close with Trump, said that Trump was perhaps thinking about firing Mueller. Now you have a very clear story with four sources and two newspapers backing this up, that the president was proposing to do something which I think is clearly unlawful. You can do lawful things in an unlawful way and arguably advances a conspiracy involving this administration.

And this issue of the independence of the Justice Department`s prosecutors, this has a history that goes back to John Quincy Adams. But Donald doesn`t know any of this, doesn`t have any respect for law and he expects you to be loyal to him. This is in some ways not surprising. I think it`s a good question to ask, when are the principled Republicans going to start saying, we need to seriously look at this. There`s something amiss here.

O`DONNELL: Let`s go to June 12th. This is when as I said in the beginning of the show, April Ryan reported on June 12th that there was what she called mass hysteria in the Trump White House because the president was considering firing the special prosecutor.

David Cay Johnston just mentioned Chris Ruddy talking about this, he talked about it on June 12th, on the same day on PBS. Let`s listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS RUDDY, NEWSMAX: I think he`s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he`s weighing that option. I think it`s pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joy Reid, April Ryan says mass hysteria in the White House on June 12th, there`s Chris Ruddy a friend of Donald Trump`s has contact with him all the time saying on June 12th, yes.

JOY REID, HOST, "A.M. JOY": Yes.

O`DONNELL: He`s considering firing the special prosecutor.

REID: And for the "New York Times" just fishing for reasons to do it. According to "The New York Times", saying, looking at a dispute over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, that Mueller had been a member there. He`d be representing Jared Kushner another reason. So fishing for any reason he could to get rid of Mueller.

I think Ari made a point, there`s a question of whether Donald Trump is ignorant or whether he`s corrupt. I think the more information you get, you sort of lean toward corrupt. I mean, you can`t be that ignorant if you`re going just beyond the Russia investigation and saying we had disputes over fees at my golf club. And so, he needs to go. He`s looking for any reason it seemed to get rid of this guy.

And so, you Don McGahn, who`s not a hero. You know, Walter Shaub was tweeting about this tonight. It`s not as if he wasn`t trying to get Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself. Remember Don McGahn was part of that, too.

So you have Donald Trump trying to assemble around himself a protection force. And feel like all these attorneys around him need to protect him. Protect him from what if he really didn`t do anything, why did he need protection?

MELBER: Joy is adding a piece in the details. If those were real concerns, anyone working for the president, including a lawyer, could certainly explore them, nothing wrong with that. But if as you just said, there was, and Lawrence was alluding to this earlier, a prefatory remark of saying, no, Russia is on my mind, or I need to stop the probe for those reasons, or I need to protect my family finances, so go find me fake reasons for an unlawful firing, OK, now you have other people on the hook for potential obstruction.

If you`ll permit me, Lawrence, I brought one more aid since we were talking about where the rules are. These are the rules, it`s CFR DOJ rules, and they say only the attorney general or when recused, the deputy, may remove the special counsel and only for good cause that cause must be specified in writing, quote, in writing of the specific reason of his or her removal. If you start asking people, lawyers or others, to falsify those things, you`re asking a bunch of people to commit crimes.

So the list that Joy mentions, the question is, was it real or was it fraud? If it was fraud, that`s a good reason people want to get far away from that process.

(CROSSTALK)

O`DONNELL: Harry, the process would have been had to be Don McGahn communicating with Rod Rosenstein telling him to fire the special prosecutor, and that actually raises the other possibility of -- that is entertained at other parts in this story, is the president considering firing Rod Rosenstein, in fact, in order to get this done?

LITMAN: Right, exactly. Or order Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, everyone anticipates Rosenstein would resign, Rachel Brand would resign. We really do have Saturday Night Massacre analogies here, including this basic point of the White House counsel, this is a John Dean moment. There`s a cancer on the presidency.

And at this point, everybody does have to circle the wagons. They know history in the White House and they know Watergate very well and the analogies begin to abound at that point.

O`DONNELL: David Cay Johnston, the discussion of this would involve a significant number of people because when you think in any political office when everyone thinks -- someone thinks the office holder is about to make a mistake, they look for help wherever they can. Who can influence this person? Who can make him not do this?

And so, the likelihood that Jared Kushner was pulled in is extremely high. The likelihood the president`s daughter was pulled in on this is extremely high. It seems like part of the agenda the special prosecutor would have with all of them.

JOHNSTON: Right. You know, if you let Trump be Trump, not only is the there a chance you`ve committed a crime. But you`ll have Donald put himself not just in impeachment mode but going to prison.

There`s a historical point here and we shouldn`t lose sight of, after the firing of Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre, the judge issued an opinion in which he pointed out that it`s clear in American law that you cannot violate the regulation, one Ari just brought up, because you are president. So, McGahn would presumably know this, and in addition to protecting himself, which I think is the more reasonable interpretation of this, he would also understand this wouldn`t hold up.

And the three-week reads for attacking Mueller, I would not be surprised if that ended up in a courtroom that the judge would dismiss it as a frivolous, and about the worst possible thing a judge can ever say to a lawyer is you made an argument that`s frivolous.

O`DONNELL: Joy, one of the stunning things about the story is we`re talking about June. This is months after -- well after the firing of James Comey, when all of these arguments have been rehearsed in the White House. Steve Bannon in Michael Wolff`s book is arguing against the firing of Comey constantly with the president, it`s going on for a while. So, the president already has heard all of the reasons why you don`t do this before he then decides to do it again, and bigger.

REID: And to do it again for the most frivolous of reasons because he once worked for a law firm that once represented Jared Kushner or because he resigned from Trump International Golf Club. I mean, it`s a very thin reasons, or that he might have been considered the FBI director again. So he`s not even fishing for solid reasons. It has to be something based I believe on conduct, egregious enough that the special counsel is no longer qualified to be special counsel.

For him to reach for reasons that were essentially personal, he`s represented someone in my family, he resigned from my golf club means he was really grasping at straws. But I think you go back to the Occam`s razor question, why is he so determined that this person must go. It leads you to believe that there`s got to be a lot of fire behind the smoke that Mueller is dredging up.

O`DONNELL: Yes. And, Ari, it`s June, it`s a point when Robert Mueller`s stock is high with Republicans in Washington, especially most importantly Republican senators. It`s a different climate now where they`ve gone to some strange territory of conspiracy theory about everything. But in those days, you had Lindsey Graham, and all sorts of Republican senators as energetic defenders of Robert Mueller.

MELBER: Right, they had what Donald Trump`s lawyer called the expectation of a, quote, fact-based exoneration. If somebody comes in and you`re being investigated for something you didn`t do, and you think the facts rule out, then we hear this often when there are investigations, people say I`m really confident by the end I`ll be fine. That was the mood maybe outside the White House, that`s what some of his lawyers advise him.

For some reason, we don`t know the reason to be clear, for some reason, Donald Trump we now learned tonight couldn`t put up with that. He needed more and he tried to get it done and the only reason everyone didn`t look up on their TVs that night and see Bob Mueller was fired is because the lawyers around Donald Trump somehow intuitive that that would be worse than standing up to him.

O`DONNELL: Ari, Joy, Harry, David, don`t move. We`re going to squeeze in a break here and we`re going to be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

END

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