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Robert Mueller’s obstruction of justice probe is bigger than we realized

With the term whirling around Washington, a former federal prosecutor explains what to know about the criminal charge of obstruction of justice. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

President Trump's fixation on “no collusion” has long belied this reality of the Russia investigation: The obstruction of justice half of the probe appears significantly more troublesome for him personally.

It's also likely to be much bigger than we realized.

That's the big, reinforcing takeaway from the New York Times's scoop Tuesday night that Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself in the Russia probe. It's merely the latest clear example of Trump trying to control or otherwise sway the people who could be in charge of his own fate. And it underlines the fact that he had very few boundaries in doing so.

The Times' Michael S. Schmidt and Julie Hirschfield David report the encounter occurred in March 2017, shortly after Sessions first recused himself:

The president objected to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump, who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry, berated Mr. Sessions and told him he should reverse his decision, an unusual and potentially inappropriate request.
Mr. Sessions refused.
The confrontation, which has not been previously reported, is being investigated by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, as are the president’s public and private attacks on Mr. Sessions and efforts to get him to resign. Mr. Trump dwelled on the recusal for months, according to confidants and current and former administration officials who described his behavior toward the attorney general.

Rather remarkably, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani seemed to tacitly confirm the episode in a comment to the Times. “Unrecuse’ doesn’t say, ‘Bury the investigation,’" Giuliani said. “It says on the face of it: Take responsibility for it and handle it correctly.”

In retrospect, it makes sense that this kind of episode would exist. On that list of 49 questions Trump's lawyers believe Mueller is interested in asking Trump, eight of them deal specifically with Sessions's recusal. It's been clear for a while that Trump was unhappy with that decision — and The Post has long reported Sessions has been a significant focus of Mueller's — but some questions seemed to allude specifically to an episode such as this:

  • “What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?”
  • “What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind?”

That latter question was initially thought to refer to a previously reported effort by Trump to get White House counsel Donald McGahn to prevent Sessions from recusing himself. Turns out, it also seems to have been about this episode. And given Trump seems to have attempted to stop, tried to reverse and repeatedly rued Sessions's decision, it's not unreasonable to think there might be other episodes we simply don't know about yet.

Other questions sure seem to point in that direction. For instance, one question was: “What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?” Trump reportedly asked Coats (in front of Pompeo) to try to help him get leniency for Michael Flynn, but this clearly isn't that.

The 7 most intriguing questions Robert Mueller wants to ask Trump

Another question was: “What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?” Another was: " ... What did you do when that consideration [of firing Mueller] was reported in January 2018?” Neither are entirely clear when it comes to the events they refer to. But the fact that the mystery of the Sessions questions above had a somewhat logical solution — another potential instance of behavior that could be interpreted as obstruction of justice — suggests there are very likely to be others. Did Trump take further action to try to undercut Mueller from the get-go? The lesson from this latest disclosure seems to be that it was likely.

And judging by Trump's efforts to get Sessions to un-recuse himself — a request that rivals many obstruction probe events for its gall, given how difficult it would be to justify publicly — it seems we don't really know the extent of Trump's efforts to loom over everyone involved in this investigation.