President Trump on Wednesday urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to terminate the investigation into Russian campaign interference “right now,” forcing his lawyers to scramble to clarify that the president was not ordering Sessions to take a specific action.
Democratic lawmakers and even some members of Trump’s own party reacted with alarm to a series of inflammatory morning tweets in which the president called the prosecution of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort “a hoax” and escalated his attacks on the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Trump’s tweets came at a particularly sensitive time in the investigation, as a federal jury in Virginia is hearing evidence in Manafort’s trial on tax evasion and fraud charges.
“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,” the president tweeted. “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
In an interview Wednesday, Trump’s lawyers said the president was not ordering Sessions to take any specific action with his latest missive.
“The president has issued no order or direction to the Department of Justice on this,” Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said, adding that the president is allowed to express his opinion on Twitter.
Even as his lawyers rushed to explain what Trump intended, the president continued to tweet about the Russia probe.
Trump’s actions are under scrutiny by Mueller, who is examining whether the president has sought to block the probe into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
On Monday, the special counsel sent Trump’s legal team a new proposal about the terms of a possible presidential interview, renewing negotiations about a sit-down after an extended standoff.
The letter from the special counsel’s office suggested that investigators would reduce the number of questions they would ask in person and instead seek some answers in written form, according to a person briefed on the negotiations.
Sekulow declined to comment on the new Mueller proposal and whether the Trump team might accept the offer.
“There continue to be ongoing discussions,” Sekulow said. “Nothing’s decided.”
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, declined to comment.
Mueller’s investigators have been scrutinizing Trump’s use of Twitter, seeking to determine the president’s motives for certain tweets — particularly messages that appear to push for a specific action that could affect the investigation, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
Mueller’s investigators have asked witnesses whether the president made statements privately in which he indicated what he wanted to see happen as a result of his tweets, particularly whether he was trying to pressure Sessions or others to resign with certain messages, these people said.
Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected the idea that Trump’s tweets could be used against him in an obstruction-of-justice case.
“Their attempt to claim obstruction by tweet is really a bizarre and novel theory,” he said. “It’s an attempt to infringe on his First Amendment right and ability to communicate with the American people.”
“I think it’s very well established the president uses tweets to express his opinion,” he added, noting that in Wednesday’s tweet, Trump “very carefully used the word ‘should.’ ”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later echoed Trump’s lawyers during a White House briefing, saying the president is frustrated with a process that has angered many Americans.
“There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to voice that opinion,” Sanders said, adding that the investigation should be completed “sooner rather than later.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment about Trump’s call for Sessions to end the investigation.
Though Trump has previously called for an end to Mueller’s probe, Wednesday’s tweets were the most direct to be aimed at Sessions — and they drew sharp criticism, including from some members of Trump’s own party.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said it “was entirely inappropriate and intemperate” for Trump to make such a request of Sessions.
Mueller was appointed special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein after Sessions recused himself from the probe, citing his work on Trump’s 2016 campaign.
To end the investigation, Sessions would either have to violate his recusal or announce that he is ending it.
“The only person who could fire Mueller is Rod Rosenstein, who is bound by Justice Department guidances that specify that he would have to have good cause, and it would have to be reported to Congress,” Collins said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former prosecutor, said Trump’s tweets Wednesday could help build a case of obstruction of justice against him.
“It seems even more vivid and serious evidence of criminal intent to obstruct justice — whether it is obstruction itself or not, it certainly indicated intent,” Blumenthal said. “There is now highly credibly evidence that the president of the United States is committing obstruction of justice in real time, right before our eyes.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Trump’s tweets indicated to her that he’s “very worried” about Mueller’s investigation.
“It’s not a secret: I think he’d like to kill the Mueller investigation any way he can, but I hope this country and particularly its representatives will not follow that,” she said.
Sekulow said the president has been making similar statements for months, as have his lawyers. He said the timing of the Manafort trial played no role in Trump’s views.
In the past, Trump has privately pressed Sessions to end his recusal and take control of the Mueller probe, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump has previously complained publicly on Twitter that the “Russian Witch Hunt Hoax” is continuing because of the decision by Sessions to recuse himself.
In June, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, called for Sessions to be fired and “end the Mueller investigation.”
U.S. attorneys are prosecuting Manafort on charges of failing to pay taxes on millions he made from his work for a Russia-friendly Ukrainian political party and then lying to get loans when the cash stopped coming in.
The Mueller investigation turned up evidence being used in the trial, but the charges are not related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Writing on Twitter, Trump dismissed the case against Manafort, saying its “old charges have nothing to do with Collusion,” and questioned why the government did not tell him that Manafort was under investigation before he hired him to be part of his 2016 campaign.
He later raised the question of whether Manafort was being treated worse than Alphonse “Al” Capone, misspelling the American gangster’s name in a tweet.
“Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and ‘Public Enemy Number One,’ or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement — although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?” Trump wrote.
In another tweet, Trump sought to distance himself from Manafort, saying he “worked for me for a very short time” and noting that he had also served Ronald Reagan, Robert J. Dole and “many other highly prominent and respected political leaders.”
Manafort was hired in late March 2016 as Trump’s campaign chairman and resigned in mid-August of that year — a stretch that included the Republican convention at which Trump was formally nominated.
Mike DeBonis, Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.