President Donald Trump on Wednesday said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should terminate the investigation into Russian election interference “right now” and called the prosecution of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort “a hoax.”
In several inflammatory tweets, Trump escalated his attacks on the investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, that includes examining whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia and whether Trump has obstructed the probe.
The tweets come 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.
Referring to an investigation that is examining his own actions, Trump called Mueller’s probe “a terrible situation” that should be stopped “before it continues to stain our country any further.”
But in an interview Wednesday, two of Trump’s lawyers said Trump was not ordering Sessions to take any specific action.
“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.
“I think it’s very well-established the president uses tweets to express his opinion,” added Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “He very carefully used the word ‘should.'”
Even as his lawyers scrambled to convey what Trump intended, the president continued to tweet about the Russia probe.
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 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 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.
In an interview, Giuliani pushed back against suggestions 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 of his First Amendment right and ability to communicate with the American people.”
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, but those efforts have not been successful.
In June, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, called for Sessions to be fired and “end the Mueller investigation.”
Trump has previously complained publicly on Twitter that the “Russian Witch Hunt Hoax” is continuing because of the decision by Sessions to recuse himself.
U.S. attorneys are prosecuting Manafort for allegedly 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 charges against Manafort as “old charges [that] 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, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, 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.
Trump was silent Tuesday at the start of Manafort’s trail, although he has criticized the prosecution before.
In June, he said the jailing of his former campaign chairman in advance of his trial was “a tough sentence,” charging that a federal judge’s decision to respond to allegations of witness tampering was “very unfair.”
In other tweets Wednesday, Trump called the Mueller investigation a “TOTAL HOAX” and reiterated his view that several Justice Department officials involved – including former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump fired – are biased against him.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · John Wagner, Devlin Barrett