ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump has been asked many times whether he was thinking of firing the lawyer leading the investigation into Russia's election interference, and usually the president's answer goes like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not, no.
No, not at all.
No, I'm not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task. But I also want the Senate and the House to come out with their findings.
SHAPIRO: Now, a report in The New York Times says the president did in fact order that special counsel Robert Mueller be dismissed last June. According to that report, White House lawyer Don McGahn said he would resign rather than carry out the directive. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now to fill in the details. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What do we know about this conflict back in June?
JOHNSON: NPR has not independently confirmed that Trump wanted to order the Justice Department to fire Robert Mueller or that the White House counsel threatened to resign. But sources tell us the president's displeasure with this Russia investigation last year was no secret at all.
In fact, there was lots of reporting at the time that Trump was raging about the investigation and about Robert Mueller. The president seemed to think Robert Mueller had some conflicts that would have prevented him from doing a good job even though the Justice Department lawyers and ethics people there had looked at these issues and gave Mueller a waiver on any conflicts.
SHAPIRO: So we're talking about June. Remind us what was going on in terms of the Russia investigation around that time.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I'd just take you back one month earlier. Let's start in May. That's when Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, May 9. Few days later, the president told NBC News the Russia thing was on his mind when he got rid of Comey. Then The New York Times reported Comey took notes about his strange interactions with the president all year, including an alleged request to go easy on the investigation of Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And then a day later, May 17, the Justice Department named Robert Mueller special counsel to lead this Russia probe.
SHAPIRO: And we're calling it a Russia probe, but Mueller was actually given a very broad mandate to look not only into coordination between Russians and the Trump campaign but also into any crimes he might discover along the way.
JOHNSON: That's right. And pretty early on in this process, people started focusing on possible obstruction of justice. That means simply trying to impede or interfere with the investigation. You don't need to succeed, just to try. The fired FBI director, Jim Comey, told Congress last June he was sure Mueller would take a look at obstruction. And Comey testified at that time he gave his memos about his interactions with the president to the special counsel to read.
Then at a press conference in the Rose Garden in June, Trump called Comey a liar and said he'd be glad to speak with Robert Mueller. Behind the scenes, though, people close to the White House were saying the president wanted to get rid of Bob Mueller. And newspapers were reporting the special counsel was looking into possible obstruction of justice.
SHAPIRO: Carrie, people have been reporting on the possibility that the president would try this for months. Why do you think this story is coming out now in January? And what does it mean for the investigation?
JOHNSON: Sure. Obstruction is one of those crimes where prosecutors need to determine a state of mind, some kind of bad or corrupt intent. You can't always do that with statements or emails. But you can try to prove a pattern, and this timeline we've been talking about helps Mueller's team try to build that pattern. It's not clear where this is heading. Mueller wants to talk to the president, interview the president about all of this. It's not clear that's actually going to happen.
But why coming out now? Well, Don McGahn, the top White House counsel, has been talking to Robert Mueller's team for at least two days, and he's also been talking about leaving the White House. My sources suggest it may say as much about the dynamic inside the White House as what's going on in the investigation. Things are bad, and people want to get their versions of the story out.
SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.