Trump Fury Over Mueller ‘Conflicts’ Goes Back to Oval Office Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump sat with Robert Mueller in the Oval Office in May of last year to interview him for a job: director of the FBI.

The next afternoon, Trump was in another Oval Office meeting when an aide interrupted with news that Mueller had taken a different post: special counsel to investigate Trump’s campaign.

Trump Fury Over Mueller ‘Conflicts’ Goes Back to Oval Office Meeting

Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who attended both meetings, were blindsided, according to a person familiar with both meetings. The president immediately blasted Sessions for not knowing the announcement was coming and challenged how the person he’d just interviewed for the FBI job -- and who Trump said had a past dispute with him over golf club fees -- could now be investigating him, the person said.

In recent weeks, Trump’s anger at Mueller -- and the president’s allegations that the special counsel is biased against him -- has broken out in public. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that Mueller is “totally conflicted.” In late June, Trump asked when Mueller was “going to list his Conflicts of Interest.”

‘Creates a Question’

“If a guy just turned you down for a job, it certainly creates a question as to whether you could be perfectly objective in making an important decision about that person," said Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who said there are additional conflicts the legal team is aware of but not making public.

It’s not clear whether Trump turned down Mueller for the job before the special counsel’s appointment, but from that moment on, Trump has complained to aides about a perceived grudge.

Trump Fury Over Mueller ‘Conflicts’ Goes Back to Oval Office Meeting

Sessions was so rattled by the president’s anger in that interrupted Oval Office meeting that he resigned verbally that day and later submitted a formal letter of resignation, according to the person briefed on the meeting. The Justice Department declined a request for comment.

Mueller, a decorated Vietnam war veteran and registered Republican who led the FBI in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, has been praised for his unimpeachable character by both Republicans and Democrats.

Those who have worked with Mueller say his work wouldn’t be influenced by any past disputes with Trump. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and supervises his investigation, has testified he is unaware of any conflicts of interest that would disqualify Mueller from the job.

Refund Dispute

Trump’s complaints to his advisers have centered around an alleged dispute over golf fees from a decade ago. Trump has told colleagues that Mueller tried to get a refund for fees he’d paid to Trump’s National Golf Club in Northern Virginia after he resigned as a member in 2011, former White House advisers said. Trump has said he got into a contentious exchange with Mueller over the issue.

A spokesman for Mueller previously told the Washington Post there was no dispute when Mueller, who was FBI director at the time, left the club. Mueller’s office declined a request for comment.

For months, those close to Trump tried to tamp down his concerns, assuring him Mueller would conduct a fair investigation and not be swayed by an old fight over golf club payments or being turned down for a job he already held for 12 years.

Trump’s legal team had forged a cooperative relationship with Mueller, turning over more than a million pages of documents and allowing White House officials to talk about private discussions with the president. In January, Mueller and Trump’s lawyers were in the final stages of discussing an interview at Camp David.

By spring, several of Trump’s original lawyers had left his team, and Giuliani joined it, taking on a public role of targeting Mueller’s probe.

Trump has since attacked Mueller personally several times.

‘Totally Conflicted’

“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” Trump said Wednesday in a Twitter posting. “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”

Trump’s public suggestion that his attorney general stop a federal investigation is a significant departure from the traditional boundaries between the president and law enforcement. Presidents typically avoid public comment on ongoing criminal investigations to avoid any perception they are seeking to influence the outcome. Trump’s lawyers have said Trump was only expressing his opinion, not making a directive.

Trump has escalated his attacks on Mueller and the investigation he repeatedly calls a “witch hunt” since the summer in what is seen as an attempt to influence public opinion before Mueller produces a report, and as the November midterm elections that will decide control of Congress draw closer.

Despite Trump’s personal attacks on Mueller and his team of investigators, lawyers for both sides are still quietly negotiating terms of an interview between Trump and Mueller.

The talks, which have been going on for more than eight months, appear to be nearing the final stages as Trump’s legal team pushes to resolve the issue before September.

Trump’s legal team submitted a proposal to Mueller in recent weeks that would make the president available to answer only questions about whether his campaign colluded with Russia, not on obstruction of justice. Mueller’s team responded this week with a counter proposal that Trump’s lawyers are responding to.

If the two sides are unable to reach an agreement they could be headed for a high-profile court battle. Mueller suggested to Trump’s former lawyer John Dowd that he could issue a subpoena to compel Trump to answer questions, which Giuliani has said Trump would fight.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.