President Donald Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, only to be talked out of doing so when White House general counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the directive, The New York Times reported Thursday night.
That's a wow.
Especially because time and time again over the past year, Trump -- and his senior advisers -- have insisted that he had never, ever, never, not once considered anything like firing Mueller.
"I haven't given it any thought," Trump replied in August -- two months after he reportedly ordered Mueller fired --- to a question from a reporter as to whether he had considered firing the special counsel.
So, besides the fact that Trump -- contrary to his public assertions -- not only thought about firing Mueller but asked that it be done, what else does The New York Times story teach us (or remind us) about Trump?
1. Trump has a tin ear
Remember the timeline here. Trump fires then-FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. That same month -- May 17 to be exact -- Mueller is appointed as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and tasked with overseeing the investigation into Russia's attempted meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.
It's right around that time that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller. McGahn objected because, according to the Times: "McGahn disagreed with the President's case and told senior White House officials that firing Mr. Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Mr. Trump's presidency."
Which is, of course, 100% right. And yet, somehow, Trump, the self-proclaimed political genius of our time, wasn't able to grasp the effect that firing Mueller might have on his presidency.
2. Trump is paranoid
This isn't something we learned from the Times story, but something the story should remind us all.
The reasons that Trump believed Mueller should be fired, according to the Times, were: a) Mueller carried a grudge over membership fees at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia. (Mueller left the club in 2011 but has denied there was any dispute over membership dues.) b) Mueller had worked most recently for the law firm that represented Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and c) Mueller had talked to Trump about returning as FBI director shortly before being named special counsel.
None of those three reasons are fireable offenses. The law firm and FBI job excuse are flimsy -- at best.
But it's the idea that Mueller, a man who spent 12 years as the head of the FBI, would somehow be biased against Trump for what may or may not even be a dispute over membership fees at a golf course really takes the cake. Mueller would risk his entire career and reputation solely to get back at Trump for golf dues?
On its face it's laughable. And yet, Trump believed it.
3. Trump can be talked down
There's a tendency to assume that once Trump makes his mind up about something -- or someone -- that's the final word. The Mueller episode suggests that's not true.
McGahn essentially called Trump's bluff on Mueller. As a lawyer, he thought it was a bad idea that would create many more problems than it would be worth. You want him fired, do it yourself, McGahn dared Trump. "Mr. McGahn also told White House officials that Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own," reads the Times report. "The President then backed off."
That's instructive. Trump, despite the fact that he had convinced himself -- on shaky evidence -- that Mueller deserved to be fired, wouldn't (or couldn't) pull the trigger on his own.
4. Trump's top aides have no real idea what's going on
That may seem harsh but, candidly, it's the best-case scenario to explain the fact that several of Trump's top aides repeatedly insisted over the past year -- including well after June 2017 -- that the President had never even considered firing Mueller.
"The President has not even discussed that," senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said in August 2017. "The President is not discussing firing Bob Mueller."
"As the White House has consistently said for months, there is no consideration of firing the special counsel," said Trump lawyer Ty Cobb in December -- a full six months after Trump reportedly nearly did.
How to reconcile these quotes with the Times reporting? Either Conway and Cobb (and others who said similar things) were lying or they just weren't looped in that Trump had, in fact, wanted to fire Mueller and only stopped when McGahn refused to do the dirty work.
5. Trump's lawyers are telling him the investigation is almost over to keep him from firing Mueller
The idea of getting rid of Mueller remains an active possibility in Trump's mind, according to the Times story. This paragraph, in particular, is jaw dropping:
"Mr. Trump has wavered for months about whether he wants to fire Mr. Mueller, whose job security is an omnipresent concern among the President's legal team and close aides. The President's lawyers, including Mr. Cobb, have tried to keep Mr. Trump calm by assuring him for months, amid new revelations about the inquiry, that it is close to ending."
We've known for a while now that Cobb (and others) have been assuring Trump that the Mueller investigation is winding down, with no real evidence to back up those claims.
Now we know why. Because by telling Trump that it will all be over soon, his lawyers keep his desire to fire Mueller at bay. Why fire someone and make yourself look guilty when that same person is about to declare you innocent, goes the thinking. Just a few more days/weeks/months and this will all be over so no need to do anything rash, the lawyers tell Trump -- and, in so doing, buy themselves more time to let Mueller do his job.