By Colby Itkowitz, Josh Dawsey and John Wagner | Washington Post
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump renewed his personal attacks against Robert S. Mueller III on Thursday, leveling discredited accusations that the former special counsel had conflicts of interest that made him a biased investigator.
The attacks came a day after Mueller’s first public statement since the conclusion of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump sought to obstruct the probe. During a brief news conference, Mueller reiterated his finding that if his team had concluded Trump did not commit a crime, it would have said so – a statement that sparked a new round of calls from Democrats to impeach the president.
Trump, in tweets and in comments to reporters, accused Mueller of being a “true never-Trumper,” who was conflicted due to a past “business dispute” between them. He also alleged that Mueller asked him for a job.
“Look, Robert Mueller should’ve never been chosen, because he wanted the FBI job and he didn’t get it,” Trump said. “And the next day, he was picked as special counsel. So you tell somebody, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t have the job.’ And then, after you say that, he’s going to make a ruling on you? It doesn’t work that way. Plus, we had a business dispute. Plus, his relationship with (former FBI Director James) Comey was extraordinary.”
But Trump’s conflict claims have been disputed by people familiar with his interactions with Mueller. Further, former White House aides told the special counsel’s office that they informed the president that the allegations were baseless when he started making them after then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein selected Mueller to lead the investigation following Comey’s firing in May 2017.
Former White House adviser Steve Bannon “recalled telling the President that the purported conflicts were ‘ridiculous’ and that none of them was real or could come close to justifying precluding Mueller from serving as Special Counsel,” according to the special counsel’s report.
Trump nonetheless has persisted in charging over the past two years that Mueller was conflicted, and the president’s advisers said his anger Thursday was sparked by his view that the special counsel’s appearance Wednesday led to a public perception that Trump had committed a crime. While some advisers, and Trump’s lawyers, tried to play down Mueller’s remarks, Trump was frustrated that they dominated the news and seemed to put more pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to begin impeachment proceedings.
“He’s somebody that dislikes Donald Trump,” the president told reporters, referring to Mueller.
Trump has repeatedly alleged that he and Mueller had a business dispute that led to bad blood between the two after Mueller ended his membership at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia. But the special counsel’s report describes a far less contentious parting of ways than the president has described.
In October 2011, Mueller informed Trump’s club that his family was canceling their membership because they lived in Washington and were “unable to make full use of the Club.” He then asked if they would be “entitled” to a refund of a portion of their initial membership fee that was paid in 1994. The club responded that the Mueller family would be put on a list for a potential refund.
“The Muellers have not had further contact with the club,” according to the report.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s assertion that he had a business dispute with Mueller and other allegations of a conflict of interest.
Trump has sought to portray Mueller and Comey as particularly close – “he loves Comey,” the president claimed Thursday. But associates of the two men have said they had a close professional relationship but did not socialize.
Trump’s contention that Mueller wanted to replace Comey as FBI director and was turned down by the president – “I told him NO,” Trump tweeted Thursday – also has been disputed by people familiar with their meeting.
The two men had a roughly 30-minute meeting at the White House in May 2017.
Mueller was invited to the White House because Trump aides were concerned about the political fallout and controversy over Comey’s firing and believed having the former FBI director meet with the president could have a calming effect, according to a former administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Bannon told investigators the purpose of the meeting was not a job interview but to have Mueller “offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI,” according to the special counsel’s report, and “although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again, he did not come in looking for the job.”
The former administration official confirmed that account, saying Mueller told White House officials that he took the meeting only as a courtesy to the president.
Trump was friendly during their talk, the official said, and when the issue came up of whether Mueller might be interested in once again becoming FBI director, he said he could not take the job unless a law was changed. In July 2011, Congress cleared legislation allowing Mueller to serve an additional two years as director beyond his 10-year term. That law effectively prevented him from serving again.
At the meeting, White House officials told Mueller they were willing to push Congress to pass a new law to make his reappointment possible, but Mueller told the president he was probably not the best person for the post, according to the former official.
“He was never offered the job, nor did he seek the job,” the official said. “He had one meeting with the president.”
The next day, Mueller was selected by Rosenstein to lead the Russia investigation, a move that continues to irk Trump.
“A total Conflict of Interest. NICE!” the president tweeted Thursday.
Mueller’s former spokesman at the Justice Department, Peter Carr, said he could not comment because the special counsel’s office is closed, and he instead referred to pages of the final report that dealt with Trump’s claims of a conflict of interest.
Trump’s focus on Mueller’s perceived conflicts plays a central role in the section of the report examining whether Trump illegally obstructed the special counsel’s investigation.
According to investigators, Trump became agitated about the issue of conflicts after Justice Department ethics experts concluded in May 2017 that Mueller could oversee the investigation even though his former law firm represented several people who could be caught up in the matter.
He told then-White House counsel Donald McGahn in June 2017 that Mueller was too conflicted to fairly run the probe. Trump wanted McGahn, according to the report, to tell Rosenstein that Mueller had conflicts that prevented him from serving as special counsel.
McGahn advised Trump that trying to oust Mueller would appear as if he were trying to meddle in the investigation and be used against him to claim obstruction of justice.
Trump continued to push for Mueller’s firing, McGahn told the special counsel, but McGahn and other aides believed “the asserted conflicts were ‘silly’ and ‘not real,’ ” and had said so to the president.
The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.