On Thursday, the New York Times revealed that President Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June and only backed down when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the President’s orders.
From the earliest days of Trump’s administration, the president and his closest allies have used a range of tactics to obfuscate damaging information and stymie Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. And Mueller, in turn, appears to have gathered a plethora of evidence that lays out this pattern of behavior.
So how might the news about Trump’s effort to fire Mueller fit into the obstruction of justice case that Mueller may be building?
In a nutshell, it’s unlikely to be at the core of any case the special counsel brings. For one thing, everyone agrees that Trump has the legal right to fire Mueller. And for another, Trump didn’t go through with the firing.
But, former prosecutors say, the news could nonetheless bolster an obstruction case, likely centered on the firing of James Comey as FBI director last May. That’s because it offers yet another piece of evidence that Trump has been eager to do whatever he could to derail any investigation into Russian election interference.
Of course, whether a sitting president can face criminal charges is an open question. But let’s leave that aside for now.
Here’s a full timeline, based on reliable reports that haven’t been seriously challenged, of the 2017 events Mueller could draw on to lay out an obstruction case against the President.
Jan. 26 and 27: Then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates meets with White House Counsel Don McGahn to warn him that the Justice Department fears Michael Flynn, at the time the White House national security adviser, is “compromised with regard to the Russians,” Yates later testified. Yates told McGahn that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence when he said he never discussed sanctions with Russian officials, and also that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI.
Late January: McGahn and his aides research the consequences of lying to the FBI and of violating the Logan Act, an 18th century law barring private citizens from negotiating with unfriendly foreign governments. McGahn concludes that Flynn likely committed a crime by discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. McGahn then warns Trump about Flynn’s possible violations.
Jan. 27: Trump invites Comey, at the time the FBI director, to a private dinner at the White House, where he tells him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey responds that he can promise only “honesty.”
Feb. 14: A day after Flynn is forced to resign, Trump asks Comey to stay behind after an Oval Office intelligence briefing, then asks him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn’s conduct.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy,” Comey later recalled Trump saying. Trump has denied making the request.
March, exact date unknown: Trump orders McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. McGahn attempts to do so, but Sessions succumbs to mounting public pressure and the advice of career DOJ lawyers, officially relinquishing oversight of the probe on March 2. Mueller’s team has since been briefed on this series of events.
March 20: Comey confirms in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI is investigating possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
March 22: Trump requests that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo stay behind after a White House briefing and asks them if they can persuade Comey to stop investigating Flynn.
A day or two later: Trump calls both Coats and Adm. Mike Rogers, the National Security Agency head who also attended the briefing, to ask them to publicly deny any evidence of collusion. Both men decline to do so. Rodgers’ former deputy Richard Ledgett writes an internal memo documenting the phone request.
March 30: Trump calls Comey to tell him that he hopes Comey will take steps to “lift the cloud” the Russia investigation has cast over the White House. “I took it as a direction,” Comey later testified. “It is the President of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”
May 3: In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Comey says the idea that the agency’s disclosure of news about the probe in October 2016 affected the election’s outcome made him “mildly nauseous.”
May 6-7: Infuriated by Comey’s comments and the ongoing Russia investigation, Trump spends the weekend at his New Jersey golf resort with top aides hashing out a plan to get rid of his FBI director. Trump and White House adviser Stephen Miller collaborate on an initial memo to justify Comey’s firing that has since ended up in Mueller’s hands. It reportedly criticizes Comey for declining to publicly declare that Trump isn’t personally under investigation in the Russia probe. McGahn and others intervene to stop the memo from going out.
May 8: At a White House meeting attended by Sessions, Trump asks Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to draw up a new memo rationalizing Comey’s dismissal. That memo rests on the implausible claim that Comey must be fired because he handled the investigation of Clinton’s emails in a way that was unfair to Clinton.
May 9: Trump abruptly fires Comey, while the FBI director is out of town visiting a field office in Los Angeles.
May 10: Trump holds a meeting with Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he brags that he “just fired the head of the F.B.I,” who he described as a “real nut job.”
“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump says. “That’s taken off.”
May 11: Trump admits on national television that Comey’s firing was motivated by this “thing with Trump and Russia,” telling NBC’s Lester Holt that the probe was based on a “made-up story.”
May 17: Robert Mueller is appointed Special Counsel.
June 8, 2017: In an explosive hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey testifies about his one-on-one interactions with Trump. He reveals that he kept detailed contemporaneous memos of those private conversations out of fear that Trump would “lie” about them. The memos are now in the possession of the special counsel.
June, exact date unknown: The President enlisted senior White House aides to carry out a smear campaign against three senior FBI officials Comey briefed on his private conversations with Trump: Comey chief of staff Jim Rybicki, soon-to-be-departing deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI general counsel James Baker. The effort to discredit the three officials began only after Trump learned they would likely be witnesses against him in Mueller’s probe.
June, exact date unknown: Trump orders McGahn to fire Mueller amid reports that Mueller is considering a possible obstruction case against him. The President backs down after McGahn threatens to quit instead of carrying out the order, though whether McGahn directly conveyed his threat to Trump is unclear. (In late January 2018, Trump called this account, which has been confirmed by multiple outlets, “fake news.”)
July 8: Trump personally dictates a misleading statement to the press obscuring the true purpose of a June 2016 meeting his son Donald Trump Jr. held with a Kremlin-linked lawyer. While flying back from the G-20 summit in Germany on Air Force One, Trump helps draft a statement that says the sit-down focused on a defunct program allowing U.S. citizens to adopt Russian children. In fact, the meeting was pitched as an opportunity for Trump Jr. to obtain Russian government “dirt” on Clinton—an offer the eldest Trump son enthusiastically accepted.
August 7: Trump calls Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) to tell him he doesn’t like a bipartisan bill being drafted by Tillis and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). The bill was designed to protect Mueller from an attempt by Trump to fire him; it has been with the Senate Judiciary Committee since September.
December, exact date unknown: Sessions reportedly begins pushing FBI Director Christopher Wray to oust his deputy, Andrew McCabe. The campaign—which leads Wray to threaten his resignation—comes after Trump’s frequent Twitter attacks on McCabe, alleging ties to Democratic politicians.
Sam Thielman contributed to this report.
This post has been updated.
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