WASHINGTON – Late last year, lawyers for President Donald Trump expressed optimism that special counsel Robert Mueller was nearing the end of his probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But if there was hope in the White House that Trump might be moving past an investigation that has dogged his presidency from the start, 2018 is beginning without signs of abatement. In fact, the new year set off a flurry of developments in the probes by Mueller and Congress ranging in importance from the trivial to the ominous.
Some recent events suggest Trump’s Russia woes aren’t going away anytime soon:
In a remarkable broadside against a fellow conservative, two Republican House members called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, criticizing his Justice Department for not co-operating with Congress and for leaks related to its Russia investigation.
Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio criticized Sessions in an opinion piece published Jan. 4 on the Washington Examiner’s website. The headline said: “It’s time for Jeff Sessions to go.”
They wrote that Sessions “has recused himself from the Russia investigation, but it would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world.”
Sessions, who was part of Trump’s presidential campaign, stepped aside last year from the department’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, later appointed Mueller to take over the probe. A Sessions resignation would allow Trump to appoint a new attorney general, who would assume oversight of the probe from Rosenstein.
A day after the lawmakers’ opinion piece, it emerged that Trump had tried to keep Sessions from recusing himself. The report that Trump directed his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to press Sessions just before he announced he would step aside added a new layer for the investigation.
The episode is known to Mueller and his team of prosecutors and is likely of interest to them as they look into whether Trump’s actions as president, including the May firing of FBI Director James Comey, amount to improper efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation. Investigators recently concluded a round of interviews with current and former White House officials, including McGahn.
WILL HE, WON’T HE?
This week, it emerged that Mueller’s team has broached the prospect of an interview with Trump, prompting speculation about when, or if, that might happen and under what terms.
The Associated Press and other news organizations reported that Mueller had indicated interest in eventually speaking with Trump as the team investigates possible co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign and the potential of obstruction of justice.
Prior presidents, including Bill Clinton, have spoken with investigators, but it remains to be seen whether Trump will do so.
Although White House lawyers have pledged their co-operation in the last several months, with a hint of confrontation to come, Trump said this week that it “seems unlikely” that he’ll be interviewed and that “we’ll see what happens.”
In a sign that congressional probes are becoming ever more partisan, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee broke with the panel’s Republican chairman on Tuesday by releasing on her own the transcript of a closed-door interview with Glenn Simpson. Simpson is the co-founder of a political research firm that commissioned what became a dossier of allegations about Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she acted because “the American people deserve the opportunity to see what he said and judge for themselves,” though Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee chairman, called the move “confounding” and said it could undermine attempts to interview additional witnesses.
According to the transcript, Simpson said the former British spy who put together the dossier — essentially a compilation of memos — brought the document to the FBI in July 2016 because he was worried about “whether a political candidate was being blackmailed.” According to Simpson, ex-spy Christopher Steele flew to Rome to meet an FBI agent stationed there for his second debriefing before the November election. He said the FBI contact told Steele that there was renewed interest in his research because the bureau had corroborated some of the material. That testimony undercut Republican allegations that the dossier initiated the FBI’s Russia probe.
Trump has dismissed the dossier as false and a political hit job, and several Republican-led congressional committees are investigating the role the dossier played in the initial stages of the FBI’s investigation.
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump accused Feinstein of being “underhanded and a disgrace” for disclosing details of Simpson’s testimony about the dossier and its allegations about his ties to Russia during the presidential campaign.
One member of the Trump inner circle who had avoided the klieg lights of the Russia investigation is the president’s daughter Ivanka. But that changed Thursday when the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said he wants the panel to interview her.
California Rep. Adam Schiff said Republicans have declined to invite many witnesses who would be valuable to the probe, including Ivanka Trump and several people who he says have additional information about a June 2016 meeting between Russians and the Trump campaign.
In the meeting at Trump Tower, several Trump campaign officials sat down with a Russian lawyer and others under the impression they might receive damaging information about the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. The meeting has captured the interest of congressional investigators and Mueller.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Ivanka Trump talked to at least two of the meeting’s participants on the way out.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Thursday, Trump accused an FBI agent who was removed from Mueller’s investigative team of “treason.”
Peter Strzok, who had been assigned to work on Mueller’s team, was removed last summer following the discovery of anti-Trump text messages he exchanged with an FBI lawyer who was also assigned to the team.
It was not clear how the exchange reflected treason, which is defined in law as aiding an enemy of the United States.
Aitan Goelman, a lawyer for Strzok, called the president’s allegation “beyond reckless.”
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.