ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump tried to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation, last June. That's according to a new report from The New York Times. The Times reports that Trump backed down only after the top White House lawyer threatened to quit. Joining us now is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.
SHAPIRO: NPR has not independently confirmed these details, but according to The New York Times, how did this all play out last June?
KEITH: So President Trump said that he wanted to fire Mueller and asked the White House counsel to do it. The White House counsel said, no, that's a terrible idea, and also, your justifications don't really hold up. And then ultimately it just sort of dropped.
SHAPIRO: You say the White House counsel pushed back on President Trump's justifications. What were those justifications?
KEITH: Conflicts of interest. He - there are three that The New York Times mentions, and these certainly had been out in the ether at the time that this happened. It was that Robert Mueller had been up for the job of FBI director, ultimately didn't get that job and then shortly thereafter became the special counsel. Also, there were some issues over fees at one of Trump's golf courses and that Mueller had worked for a law firm that represented Jared Kushner at some time, Kushner being Trump's son-in-law.
Now, around the time that The New York Times says that the president tried to fire Mueller, a friend of his, a confidant, Christopher Ruddy from Newsmax, appeared on the "PBS NewsHour" with Judy Woodruff. And I just want to play a little clip from that interview which in light of The Times' story suddenly takes on additional meaning.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is President Trump prepared to let the special counsel pursue his investigation?
CHRISTOPHER RUDDY: Well, 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. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake even though I don't think there's a justification.
KEITH: And the interesting thing is that then Christopher Ruddy in that interview goes on to discuss the very conflicts of interest that The Times now says were President Trump's proposed justifications for firing Mueller or trying.
SHAPIRO: And to be clear, the conflict of - the concern involving the golf club wasn't about Mueller as FBI director. It was about Mueller as a member of the golf club, according to The Times.
SHAPIRO: So Don McGahn, the White House counsel, threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive according to The Times. Explain why McGahn disagreed with Trump.
KEITH: Well, so he disagreed because he didn't feel that these conflicts were the types of conflicts that would require the special counsel to step aside from the job and also simply because getting rid of the special counsel in this very heated environment would be suicide. I mean, it would make the problem all the much more worse.
And just now, as - a few minutes ago, U.S. Senator Mark Warner - he's a Democrat from Virginia and the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, which is investigating - the Senate Intelligence Committee which is investigating Russia interference. He says, I'm saying it again; firing the special counsel is a red line that the president cannot cross and would be a gross abuse of power.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith on tonight's report from The New York Times that back in June, President Trump ordered special counsel Robert Mueller fired, then backed down when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit. Thanks very much, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.