President Donald Trump said that he didn’t fire special counsel Robert Mueller because firings “didn’t work out too well” for former President Richard Nixon, though he claimed he had the Constitutional authority to do so.
“I wasn’t going to fire (Mueller). You know why? Because I watched Richard Nixon go around firing everybody, and that didn’t work out too well,” Trump said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that aired Sunday.
Trump appeared to be referring to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which Nixon, on October 20, 1973, ordered the firing of Archibald Cox as special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation. Rather than comply with the order, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned. Cox was eventually fired by Solicitor General Robert Bork.
The Mueller report describes how Trump did try to fire the special counsel, despite saying in the ABC News interview that he “wasn’t going to fire Mueller.”
The report said that Trump directed then-White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed. Instead of following the order, McGahn prepared a resignation letter, informed his deputies and quickly got in touch with his personal attorney. Despite this incident, and other efforts by Trump to impede the investigation, Mueller was allowed to finish his work.
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Trump insisted in the interview that he had the authority to fire Mueller – had he decided to do so – from Article II of the Constitution, telling Stephanopoulos that “Article II allows me to do whatever I want. Article II would’ve allowed me to fire him.”
Article II of the US Constitution lays out the President’s duties and powers including his abilities as commander in chief of the military, as well as the procedure to elect and remove a sitting president. In his report, Mueller acknowledged that the Constitution gives Trump, “unique and powerful means of influencing official proceedings, subordinate officers, and potential witnesses.”
In letters to the special counsel, Trump’s lawyers argued that Article II essentially shielded Trump from even being investigated for taking actions that he is legally allowed to. This includes removing the FBI director, like he did with then-Director James Comey in May 2017.
Mueller resoundingly rejected this argument when Trump’s lawyers tried to make it. The Mueller report notes that the Constitution doesn’t give Trump unlimited powers, and specifically does not grant him the ability to skirt federal investigations and potential accountability from Congress.
Trump also spoke in the interview about Trump Tower Moscow, calling it more of a “concept” than a deal.
“I didn’t even do a deal in Moscow,” Trump told Stephanopoulos, who pressed the President on the deal, saying he was pursuing one.
Trump replied: “Excuse me. Pursuing, what does pursuing mean? Do you know that I don’t even think they had a site? I don’t even think they knew who was gonna do the deal. It was a concept of a deal, more of a concept than anything else. It was a concept of a deal someplace in Russia, probably in Moscow, and I was looking at places all over the world.”
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen is currently serving a three-year prison sentence in part for a conviction of lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. And last week, the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., testified to Congress about the project, saying that he didn’t pay close attention to it because it was one of many potential deals that had been in the works, according to a source close to Trump Jr.
Cohen led efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign to build a Trump project in Moscow, and even sought help from the Kremlin, according to the Mueller report. The project didn’t happen. Trump said during the campaign that he has no interests in Russia and didn’t acknowledge the failed Moscow effort until he was in office.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju and Kara Scannell contributed to this report.