By Clare Foran, CNN
President Donald Trump on Wednesday said his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, should end special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference, arguing that the ongoing probe is hurting the United States.
Although the President has repeatedly criticized the investigation and Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from overseeing it, Trump’s tweet that his attorney general “should stop” the probe is notable and raises fresh questions about whether the President is attempting to obstruct justice.
“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!” the President tweeted.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Trump’s tweet. Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to walk back the tweet early Wednesday afternoon, telling CNN’s Dana Bash that Trump was “expressing his opinion on his favored medium for asserting his First Amendment right of free speech. He said ‘should’ not ‘must’ and no Presidential order was issued or will be.”
Although CNN has reported that several members of Mueller’s team have donated to Democrats, Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has also been the subject of several Republican-led congressional inquiries. Mueller is a Republican who was appointed as FBI director by President George W. Bush, and the man who tapped him as special counsel, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, was named by Trump and is also a registered Republican.
Last year, Sessions recused himself from any investigation related to the 2016 presidential campaigns soon after it came to light that he had failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearing contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington. After he stepped aside, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to look into Russian interference, including whether any Trump campaign officials coordinated with Moscow.
Raises obstruction questions
A central focus of Mueller’s probe is whether Trump has obstructed justice in the Russia investigation, and Wednesday’s tweet could be scrutinized by the special counsel’s team. Citing three people briefed on the matter, The New York Times reported last month that Mueller is reviewing Trump’s tweets as well as “negative statements” made by the President related to the attorney general and former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump abruptly fired last year.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, raised the question on Twitter Wednesday shortly after Trump’s remark.
“The President of the United States just called on his Attorney General to put an end to an investigation in which the President, his family and campaign may be implicated,” Schiff wrote. “This is an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight. America must never accept it.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the tweet “highly inappropriate” and dismissed the possibility that Mueller is going to be fired.
“It would be far better if the President refrained from commenting and for Mr. Mueller to continue his investigation, which so far already has 30 indictments, including Russian nationalists,” she said on Capitol Hill.
Trump ratchets up attacks
The President has escalated his attacks on the Mueller probe in recent days, and his tweet on Wednesday comes on the second day of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s trial, the first case Mueller’s team has taken before a jury. Manafort is facing charges of bank fraud and tax evasion, though his alleged crimes occurred before he was involved with the Trump campaign.
Trump brought up Manafort by name in a second tweet on Wednesday, saying that he has worked in the past for “highly prominent and respected political leaders,” and that the charges against him “have nothing to do with Collusion,” which he referred to as “a Hoax!” In another tweet on Wednesday, Trump wrote, “Russian Collusion with the Trump Campaign, one of the most successful in history, is a TOTAL HOAX.”
Trump has repeatedly denied that his campaign colluded with Russia. He has repeatedly criticized Sessions for recusing himself and CNN has previously reported that Trump pressured the attorney general on multiple occasions to overturn his recusal.
On Tuesday, Trump repeated an argument recently made by Giuliani that collusion is not actually a crime. Legal experts have pointed out, however, that if any individuals are found to have collaborated with Russia during the 2016 election, they could be charged with crimes such as conspiracy.