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8 times Trump tried to call off the dogs in the Russia probe

President Trump lashes out with insults to defend himself as the Russia investigation unfolds. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Last week, President Trump asserted that he had full control over the Justice Department -- but that he hadn't exercised it because he didn't want to look heavy-handed in the Russia investigation. "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department," he said, "but for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.”

Late Thursday, we learned of another example of Trump apparently being pretty involved and heavy-handed behind closed doors.

Trump dispatched White House counsel Don McGahn to try and stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions, report Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey. The news was first reported by the New York Times.

Below we recap this and seven other instances in which Trump pretty clearly attempted to influence the path of the Russia probe. Whether any of them amount to obstruction of justice is one of two major questions for special counsel Robert Mueller. Legal experts generally agree that a president has broad authority over the executive branch and that Mueller would have to prove that Trump's actions showed corrupt intent.

1. Dispatching McGahn to prevent Sessions's recusal

Trump has previously bemoaned Sessions's decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation -- even publicly. It's the biggest source of tension in their continually strained relationship. So it's no surprise that he didn't want Sessions to do so.

But actually dispatching McGahn to try and convince Sessions not to recuse himself means Trump actually used official White House staff to try and control who would be overseeing the Russia probe. Again, whether that amounts to obstruction is the big question.

While Sessions didn't heed McGahn's advice, he did reportedly do something else that could catch investigators' eye; according to the Times's latest report, he tried to plant negative stories about then-FBI Director James B. Comey -- this was before Trump fired him -- after Comey testified in front of Congress in early May:

Two days after Mr. Comey’s testimony, an aide to Mr. Sessions approached a Capitol Hill staff member asking whether the staffer had any derogatory information about the F.B.I. director. The attorney general wanted one negative article a day in the news media about Mr. Comey, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.

The Times report doesn't indicate whether Sessions was acting on Trump's behalf, but it does say Trump's desire to fire Comey had been known internally for some time.

2. Asking Comey for loyalty

After Trump fired him, Comey testified before Congress and recounted his conversations with Trump. It also came to light that he took notes at the time because he was concerned about Trump's behavior. Comey said Trump told him, “I expect loyalty,” and he also suggested that Trump subtly threatened his job. Comey said Trump asked him whether he wanted to remain FBI director, which he found “strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to.”

Trump and fellow Republicans have sought to undermine Comey's version of events and his character, but the Times reports that Mueller has been able to substantiate key aspects of his testimony -- including, notably, via notes taken by then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.

3. Suggesting Comey be lenient on Michael Flynn

Separately, Comey has said Trump asked him whether he could take it easy on Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser. “I hope you can let this go,” Comey quoted Trump as saying in a memo written shortly after a meeting with Trump in February, as first reported by the Times.

Comey said in his later testimony that he understood it to be a direct request from Trump. “I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying, 'I hope this.' I took it as, this is what he wants me to do,” Comey said. “I didn't obey that, but that's the way I took it.”

4. Asking Comey to say Trump wasn't under investigation

Comey said in his testimony that Trump asked him to say publicly what Comey had said privately: that Trump wasn't personally under investigation (at the time).

“He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud,’ ” Mr. Comey said of a March 30 phone call. “I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then reemphasized the problems this was causing him.”

Comey also said he didn't want to have to recant his statement if Trump ever were to be the subject of investigation, which later turned out to be the case.

5. Asking Coats and Rogers to deny evidence of collusion

The Washington Post reported in May that Trump had, in March, tried to enlist Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers to push back against the FBI investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia:

Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.
Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications with the president.

In later testimony, Coats and Rogers did not directly respond to questions about this matter, but they did say they never felt pressured to intervene in the investigation.

6. Urging Sen. Burr to wrap things up

The New York Times reported recently that President Trump over the summer pressured Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and other Republicans to bring a swift end to their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Notably, Burr confirmed -- on the record -- that Trump told him he hoped the investigation would conclude soon.

“It was something along the lines of, ‘I hope you can conclude this as quickly as possible,’” Burr told the Times of Trump's comments. He said he told the president that "when we have exhausted everybody we need to talk to, we will finish.”

The Times also reported that Trump made similar requests to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the intelligence committee.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, characterized the president's action as “pressure that should never be brought to bear by an official when the legislative branch is in the process of an investigation.”

A White House spokesman told the Times that Trump “at no point has attempted to apply undue influence on committee members."

7. Trying to get Sen. Tillis to back off

Politico reported in August that President Trump appeared to pressure two Senate Republicans to back off their Russia-related efforts. According to Dawsey and Elana Schor, Trump vented frustrations about Congress's Russia sanctions bill to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and tried to get Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to back off a planned bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired.

From Politico's report:

Trump dialed up Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on Aug. 7. … The Mueller bill came up during the Tillis-Trump conversation, according to a source briefed on the call — the latest signal of the president's impatience with GOP senators' increasing declarations of independence from his White House. Trump was unhappy with the legislation and didn't want it to pass, one person familiar with the call said.

Trump's ability to fire Mueller has been chewed over for months, especially after an ally, Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy, said in June that Trump was considering it. Tillis stepped forward this month in a somewhat surprising effort to protect Mueller. The bill would check the executive branch's ability to fire any special counsel by putting it in front of a panel of three federal judges.

8. Complaining to McConnell about not getting protection

An August report in the Times about Trump's and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) strained relationship included a tantalizingly brief mention of Trump complaining to McConnell about McConnell not doing enough to protect the president from the Russia probe:

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

Again, it's notable here that Trump believes McConnell should be protecting him.

Callum Borchers contributed to this post.