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Report: Trump ordered Mueller fired, but White House counsel threatened to quit

President Donald Trump listens during a dinner with European business leaders at the World Economic Forum, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Davos. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ordered Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III fired last year, but backed down when a top White House lawyer threatened to resign rather than carry out the demand to oust the man leading the Russia investigation, the New York Times is reporting.

White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II told the president last June that he would quit before he would ask the Justice Department to fire the former FBI chief, the newspaper reported, citing four people told of the incident.

“The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel,” the Times reported. “Mr. Mueller learned about the episode in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice.”

When the president first learned Mueller could be pursuing an obstruction of justice charge, Trump argued that the former FBI chief had his own conflicts of interest that should bar him from handling the probe into potential Russian interference in the presidential election, two of the sources told the newspaper.

RELATED: More than 20 White House employees quizzed by Mueller, lawyer says

Those conflicts included Mueller resigning his membership at Trump National Golf Club over a fee dispute years ago, Mueller having worked at the law firm that had once represented Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mueller being interviewed to return as FBI director last year before he was tapped to be special counsel last year.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. | Andrew Harnik/AP file photo

Firing Mueller would be “catastrophic” for the Trump presidency, McGahn told senior White House officials, according to the newspaper. Trump then backed down.

Trump’s lawyer Ty Cobb told the Times: “We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.”