Mueller’s expanding probe ups stakes for Trump
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s move to investigate whether Donald Trump sought to get the FBI to back off from a probe of his former national security adviser has angered the president and raised the stakes in the inquiry of Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice,” Trump said on Twitter Thursday morning. He decried a “witch hunt” that he said is being “led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
Although White House officials tried earlier this week to tamp down speculation that Trump might try to fire Mueller, the escalating conflict led members of Congress of both parties to warn Trump Thursday against the temptation to do so.
“It would be a catastrophic mistake, but he doesn’t have the authority to do it,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told reporters. She noted that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, told senators this week that only he could dismiss the special counsel.
Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who met with the special counsel a day earlier, said, “I have a lot of confidence in Mueller.”
Rosenstein named Mueller as special counsel last month to lead the inquiry into Russia’s meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in that effort. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last month, citing the Russia investigation as the reason.
Tensions escalated with Mueller’s latest moves. He is planning to interview two top U.S. intelligence officials about whether Trump sought their help to get the FBI to back off a related probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to three people familiar with the inquiry.
That suggests Mueller is examining the president’s own conduct, which may include whether Trump tried to obstruct justice.
Mueller wants to interview Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, according to the people, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Separately, Coats testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session Thursday that lasted for three-and-a-half hours.
Burr said they discussed questions that Coats told lawmakers he couldn’t answer in public last week at a hearing, as well as the budget for intelligence for the next fiscal year.
“We worked through all of that,” Burr told reporters.
The special counsel is also set to meet with a leading Republican and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee as Mueller and lawmakers seek to avoid conflicts over their parallel investigations.
“We’ll be meeting with him in the next few days. It will be a closed hearing,” Adam Schiff of California, the panel’s top Democrat, told reporters.
A spokesman for Trump’s outside lawyer reacted angrily to the reports of an expanding probe by Mueller, accusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation of breaking the law by disclosing the information.
“The FBI leak of information regarding the President is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal,” Mark Corallo, the spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said in an email on Wednesday.
Corallo didn’t elaborate on why he singled out the FBI as the source of information. Mueller’s decision to talk with the two officials was reported earlier by the Washington Post.
“Current and former leaders in the intelligence community have repeatedly said there’s been no effort to impede the investigation in any way,”Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “The continued illegal leaks are the only crime here.”
The president took to Twitter again Thursday afternoon to wonder why his defeated Democratic opponent wasn’t getting the same scrutiny.
“Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?” he asked.
“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice,” Trump wrote in his first tweet. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA.”
At a hearing last week of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats and Rogers refused to say whether they were asked by Trump to help impede an FBI investigation and suggested any response in a closed hearing would require consultations with White House lawyers on whether executive privilege should be invoked.
“To the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate,” Rogers said at the hearing,without answering whether he was asked — but not directed — to back off.
Mueller’s plans emerged just a week after Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump pressed him in February to ease up on an investigation into Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign for misleading administration officials about his contacts with Russia’s U.S. ambassador.
Comey also said Trump repeatedly sought assurances that he wasn’t a target of the Russia investigation. Comey said he told the president on three occasions that he wasn’t personally under investigation.
Comey suggested he expected Mueller would look into whether Trump’s efforts to intervene in the FBI inquiry amounted to obstruction of justice.
Trump’s spokesman said when he dismissed Comey on May 9 that the reason was the former FBI chief’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server. He cited the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia inquiry, and his deputy Rosenstein.
But days later, Trump said in an NBC interview that he had decided to fire Comey before getting their input and he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he did it.
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News in an interview broadcast May 11.