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Mueller Report Includes Descriptions Of White House Staffers Refusing Trump's Orders


When President Trump ordered his staff to take action, they didn't always comply - that's one takeaway from the special counsel Robert Mueller's report; it included detailed descriptions of instances where staffers refused to follow the president's directions to interfere in the investigation. NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is in the studio to talk more. Hey there, Ayesha.


CORNISH: So what is the White House saying about some of these revelations?

RASCOE: Well, so President Trump is pushing back on one of the key episodes outlined in the report involving then White House counsel Don McGahn. According to the report, Trump urged McGahn to pressure Rod Rosenstein to remove special counsel Robert Mueller, but he refused to do it. Trump tweeted that he could have fired Mueller if he wanted to, but he chose not to. And White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said today that if Trump wanted someone fired, he would do it. She also said he never directed anyone to do anything illegal or to mislead anyone.

But the actual findings of the report contradict that; investigators found that Trump did pressure aides to relay messages that weren't true. A former White House attorney, Jim Shultz, worked with McGahn in the administration. He spoke with Morning Edition today, and he said there were - that there are times when staff can't carry out a directive. Here's what he said.


JIM SCHULTZ: From time to time, it's customary for White House staff or governor staff - I served as general counsel to a governor here in Pennsylvania - when you're in those positions, it's your job to tell the boss, no. And that's what Don McGahn did in this instance.

RASCOE: So his argument was that this was not unusual, but obviously, in the case of trying to fire Mueller, that would have had huge political ramifications; it wasn't, like, a run-of-the-mill policy matter.

CORNISH: Now, have there been other instances outside of the Mueller probe where staffers haven't followed Trump's orders?

RASCOE: So this has really been an issue throughout Trump's presidency, most recently the Department of Homeland Security - there have been reports that Trump wanted his former homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, to stop accepting asylum-seekers crossing the southern border, and she refused.

There was also times early on in his administration where Trump was continually threatening to put tariffs on aluminum and steel and other - and products from China, but his advisers at the time resisted his calls to do so. Eventually, Trump just ended up announcing the tariffs, in a move that really surprised members of the administration. And there've been - also have been a lot of examples kind of on the foreign policy front.

CORNISH: What are the larger implications, though, to this dynamic between - this dynamic in the White House?

RASCOE: Well, who can forget, but at this point you might have forgotten that there was this anonymous op-ed in The New York Times by a Trump administration official last September who basically said that members of the administration worked to limit Trump's, quote, "misguided impulses."

And from that op-ed, you talked - that administration official said, basically, there's a two-track presidency, and that's pretty much what you end up seeing, where you have Trump saying one thing and his administration saying and doing something else. And it's not always clear what's going on or the direction that the administration is taking, and there's also a question of accountability - who's really in charge? Is it the president who was elected, or these unelected officials?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.