WASHINGTON — Last month’s appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia enraged President Trump. Yet, at least initially, he holstered his Twitter finger and publicly said nothing.
But behind the scenes, the president soon began entertaining the idea of firing Mueller even as his staff tried to discourage him from something they believed would turn a bad situation into a catastrophe, according to several people with direct knowledge of Trump’s interactions.
For now, the staff has prevailed. “While the president has every right to” fire Mueller, “he has no intention to do so,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters late Tuesday after a day of speculation over Mueller’s fate.
Trump, angered by reports in Breitbart News and other conservative news media that Mueller was close to James Comey, the FBI director he had fired, repeatedly brought up the political and legal implications of firing someone he viewed as incapable of an impartial investigation.
In recent days, the president has told his staff, his visitors, and his outside advisers that he was increasingly convinced Mueller, like Comey, his successor as director of the FBI, was part of a “witch hunt” by partisans who wanted to see him weakened or forced from office.
But Trump has made no decision to act against Mueller and insists he knows the risks of doing so — but people close to the president say Trump is so volatile they cannot be sure that he will not change his mind if he finds out anything to lead him to believe the investigation has been compromised.
Whether Trump can tolerate a free-ranging investigation, directed by Mueller, that could raise questions about the legitimacy of his Electoral College victory, the topic that most sparks his rage, will be a critical test for a president who has continued on Twitter and elsewhere to flout the advice of his staff, friends, and legal team.
When asked by the pool of reporters covering a midday meeting with Republican lawmakers at the White House whether he supported Mueller, Trump gave no answer, even though he often uses such interactions to make headlines or shoot down stories he believes to be fake.
That may have been by design, according to a person who spoke to Trump on Tuesday. The president thinks the possibility of being fired will focus the veteran prosecutor on delivering what the president desires most: a blanket public exoneration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also declined to offer his support for Mueller during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But at a separate hearing, Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller and continues to oversee the investigation, promised lawmakers he would not permit Mueller to be dismissed without legitimate reason.
“As long as I’m in this position, he’s not going to be fired without good cause,” Rosenstein said. “I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders,” he said, emphasizing that the attorney general “actually does not know what we’re investigating.”
He added, “Director Mueller is going to have the full independence he needs to conduct that investigation appropriately.”
While the president is deeply suspicious of Mueller, his anger is reserved for Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe and for Comey. Trump was especially outraged by Comey’s admission last week that he had leaked a memo with details of his interactions with the president in hopes of spurring the appointment of a special counsel.
Several senior Trump aides believe that Comey went public with his doubts about the president’s behavior and trustworthiness with the intention of steering Rosenstein toward appointing his friend Mueller, according to one longtime Trump associate who remains close to the White House.
The two men worked closely together in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Mueller was FBI director and Comey was a high-ranking Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration. Comey endorsed Mueller’s appointment when he appeared last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, further angering Trump and his staff.
While the president’s aides have sought to sow skepticism about Mueller, whom they interviewed about the possibility of returning to the FBI job the day before he accepted his position as special counsel, few have advocated his termination, reflecting the recognition that Trump’s angry reactions to the congressional and FBI investigations now underway are imperiling his presidency.
The pushback also represented growing willingness among staffers to try to keep Trump from making damaging mistakes — an important change in a White House dominated by a president who often demands obeisance.
For all the talk of how no one in the West Wing tells the president “no,” many people do — though often unsuccessfully.
Among the aides most alarmed by the idea of firing Mueller, according to people familiar with the situation, was Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, whom Democrats mocked earlier this week for publicly saying he feels “blessed” to serve Trump. Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, has also advised against firing Mueller.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, supported firing Comey, but he has been less pugnacious lately, administration officials said. Trump’s wife, Melania, has adopted a more temperate tone, telling her husband that she believed the appointment of Mueller would speed resolution of the Russia scandal and expressing her view that he would be exonerated, according to two people with direct knowledge of her advice.