The Justice Department’s special counsel investigating Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election is now also reportedly examining whether President Donald Trump attempted to obstruct justice.
Robert Mueller, the former FBI director now leading the DOJ probe, is looking into whether the 45th president is guilty of a federal crime, The Washington Post reported Wednesday evening.
Citing unnamed “officials,” the Post reported that Mueller’s investigation has taken a dramatic turn. No longer is he merely focused on Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, meaning he also appears to be zeroing in on Trump’s actions since taking office on Jan. 20.
The special counsel, who has moved quickly to take full control of the investigation, is reportedly interviewing what the Post described as “senior intelligence officials” as part of what suddenly is also probe into possible obstruction of justice. That shift began shortly after May 9, when Trump fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee that there were discussions at high levels about firing Comey even before he was confirmed. He told the panel that he and others, including Trump, concluded months before Comey’s termination that it was time for a “fresh start” at the bureau, adding that concerns about Comey’s performance were never discussed with the then-FBI chief.
Trump has said he was going to fire Comey no matter what, and has also acknowledged that the “Russia thing” was on his mind when he made the final termination call.
During his own dramatic testimony before the same Senate committee last week, Comey said he felt he was fired in large part because he refused to drop an FBI probe into possible nefarious ties between Russian officials and Trump’s campaign adviser and first national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Comey also suggested another factor in his termination was his declining to lift what Trump, during private phone conversations, described as the “cloud” of the bureau’s Russia probe hanging over his presidency that was making it difficult for him to govern.
On Friday, Trump attempted to push back. He told reporters in a sweltering Rose Garden that Comey had lied under oath, saying: “Frankly, James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said, and some of the things that he said just weren’t true.”
The president also vowed he would tell Mueller, should he be interviewed as part of the special counsel’s probe, just what he told reporters: that he “didn’t say” to Comey that he wanted him to drop a bureau’s probe of Flynn. He also denied that he asked Comey to utter a loyalty pledge during a private Oval Office meeting before which he asked a list of officials, including Sessions and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a top White House adviser, to leave the room.
The White House on Wednesday evening declined to comment about the Post’s obstruction-of-justice report. Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred Roll Call to an outside counsel.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
But in a statement issued shortly after the Post report, a spokesman for Kasowitz, Mark Corallo, said: “The FBI leak of information regarding the President is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal.”
The apparent obstruction probe immediately conjures memories of the Watergate scandal. The Post report came days after a Trump confidant, Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy, told PBS the president is “considering” firing Mueller.
Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, has since denied that Trump intends to do so.
“Chris was speaking for himself and did not speak to the president,” a White House official told Roll Call in an email late Monday.
Trump would need Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, to carry out such a termination. If he declined, Trump would have to fire him and find another DOJ official willing to do so — a scenario that would be reminiscent of the Watergate era and its infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.”
In October 1973, the Justice Department’s special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in, Archibald Cox, took his quest for information from the Nixon White House to court. Nixon demanded Attorney General Elliot Richardson immediately fire Cox. Richardson refused, and instead resigned. Ditto for Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
Ultimately, Robert Bork, at the time solicitor general, fired Cox.
The Saturday Night Massacre “released a firestorm of protest, with nearly a half million telegrams bombarding the White House in one week,” according to the White House Historical Association.
The Post report only further embroils Trump and his presidency in legal problems that also feature lawsuits from the District of Columbia and Maryland, as well as from nearly 200 congressional Democrats, over his business holdings and foreign governments.