(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT) —- WASHINGTON — A longtime friend to President Trump said on Monday that Mr. Trump was considering whether to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the president’s campaign and Russian officials.
The startling assertion comes as conservative allies of Mr. Trump — who initially praised Mr. Mueller’s selection as special counsel — have begun trying to attack his credibility.
Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media who was at the White House on Monday, said on PBS’s “NewsHour” that Mr. Trump “is considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel — I think he’s weighing that option.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Monday that “Chris speaks for himself” but declined to comment further. Allies of the president cast doubt on the idea that Mr. Trump would take such a drastic step, and White House officials said Mr. Ruddy did not meet directly with the president while he was there.
Firing Mr. Mueller would be a politically explosive move that would raise new questions about Mr. Trump, whose abrupt dismissal of James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, generated accusations of obstruction of justice and led to Mr. Mueller’s appointment.
[Video: Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy says Mueller has ‘real conflicts’ as special counsel Watch on YouTube.]
Mr. Trump has been known, in moments of frustration and stress, to vent threats of action to members of his inner circle. In the past, some of those private expressions of anger have been made public by friends and associates, only to generate speculation about possibly imminent moves by Mr. Trump that never take place — including a senior staff shake-up that has yet to happen.
Under Justice Department rules, Mr. Trump seemingly would have to order Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to first rescind department regulations protecting a special counsel from being fired for no good reason and then to fire Mr. Mueller. If Mr. Rosenstein refused, Mr. Trump could fire him, too — a series of events that would recall the “Saturday Night Massacre” during Watergate, when President Richard M. Nixon sought to dismiss the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
White House officials referred questions to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz, as they have recently on all matters relating to the Russia investigation. A spokesman for Mr. Kasowitz declined to comment.
Newt Gingrich, a longtime supporter of Mr. Trump’s, said in a tweet on Monday that it is time to “rethink” Mr. Mueller’s ability to be fair.
“Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair,” Mr. Gingrich tweeted after in recent weeks praising Mr. Mueller’s integrity. Apparently referring to Federal Election Commission reports, he added: “Look who he is hiring. check fec reports. Time to rethink.”
The idea that the investigation is illegitimate and politically motivated is one that has been gaining currency on the political right for months. Conservative writers, radio hosts and cable personalities — emboldened by the president himself, who has called it a witch hunt — have repeatedly sought to discredit the inquiry, its investigators, the mainstream news media accounts of it and the lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are demanding more answers.
Initially, Mr. Comey was the subject of much of their derision. Now they have moved onto Mr. Mueller, a man they are attacking as too compromised and conflicted to lead an independent inquiry.
In the PBS interview, Mr. Ruddy said Mr. Trump had considered replacing Mr. Comey with Mr. Mueller, who also was a former F.B.I. director during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. A senior White House official confirmed that the president interviewed Mr. Mueller for the F.B.I. post in the Oval Office the day before he was tapped by the deputy attorney general to serve as the special counsel in the Russia investigation.
Mr. Ruddy said the president was weighing whether to dismiss Mr. Mueller because of concerns about conflicts of interest. He said those concerns included the interview for the F.B.I. post and connections between Mr. Mueller’s law firm and other White House officials.
“There are some real conflicts. He comes from a law firm that represents members of the Trump family,” Mr. Ruddy said. “I know for a fact that he was under consideration and that the president did talk with him in the days before he was named special counsel. I think there’s a conflict there.”
Democrats on Monday accused Republicans of beginning a campaign to smear Mr. Mueller’s reputation as he engages in a broad investigation that could include whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by first pressuring Mr. Comey to end parts of the inquiry, and then by firing him.
Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, scoffed at the idea that the president might fire Mr. Mueller.
“If President fired Bob Mueller, Congress would immediately re-establish independent counsel and appoint Bob Mueller,” Mr. Schiff said in a tweet. “Don’t waste our time.”