WASHINGTON—If Russia special counsel Robert Mueller is indeed building a case of obstruction against President Trump, the president’s thwarted attempt to fire the special counsel last year may have made Mueller’s job that much easier.
Even though White House Counsel Donald McGahn successfully headed off Trump’s reported effort Mueller could use the episode as evidence of Trump’s intent to shield himself from possible legal jeopardy, analysts said.
The New York Times and The Washington Post reported late Thursday that Trump ordered McGahn to fire Mueller in June, but McGahn refused and threatened to quit if the president insisted. The reports said Trump abandoned the idea after that. Trump on Friday dismissed the report as “fake news.”
‘EXPLICIT EVIDENCE’ OF INTENT
“The hardest thing to prove in most obstruction cases is intent to obstruct,” former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter said. “Explicit evidence of such an intent, like actually ordering Mueller’s firing, is extremely valuable to the investigators.
“This evidence,” Cotter said, “will make it even harder for Trump to argue that whatever he did—was not because he was trying to obstruct.”
Ron Hosko, former chief of the FBI’s criminal division, said the president has placed himself in a potentially “precarious” legal position that also will make a looming interview with Mueller’s investigators even more complicated.
“If Mueller also has evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians, the president’s attempt to fire Mueller only invites an obstruction charge,” Hosko said. “And if there is evidence of an underlying crime of collusion, I think you could see Mueller move very quickly.”
An obstruction case would be harder to prosecute without evidence of an underlying crime, such as colluding with a foreign government to tip an election.
BUILDING THE CASE
While Trump’s push against Mueller was first disclosed by the New York Times late Thursday, it is likely that the special counsel—who already has interviewed McGahn, then-chief of staff Reince Preibus and former press secretary Sean Spicer—has been aware of the failed effort for some time.
“In addition to the interviews, Mueller likely has the text messages, emails and other communications that will provide a fuller context to what led to this (attempt to fire Mueller) and the decision to dismiss former FBI Director James Comey,” Hosko said.
Comey’s dismissal, which came just a month prior to move against Mueller, has been a central focus of the obstruction examination.
In the days after the firing of Comey, who was managing the Russia investigation, Trump told NBC News that the director’s dismissal was linked to his handling of the Russia inquiry.
“You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” the president said then. “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
Since his firing, Comey has become a an important witness for Mueller related to the president’s possible attempts at obstruction, disclosing last year that he kept detailed memos of every encounter with Trump.
Among those contacts: the president allegedly asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him. He also urged Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak just prior to the inauguration in which the two discussed the lifting of Obama administration sanctions against Russia.
Flynn pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with the continuing special counsel’s investigation.
Mueller’s focus on possible obstruction emerged in fuller view earlier this week, when the Justice Department acknowledged that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been interviewed for several hours by Mueller’s team.
Sessions, who participated in Comey’s firing, also is a key witness to the events that prompted the abrupt dismissal.
The attorney general, who recused himself last year from the Russia inquiry because of his own campaign-related contacts with Kislyak, has said that Comey was fired last May because of his controversial handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of private email server while she was secretary of State.
Yet only a month after dismissing Comey, an angry president apparently sought to take out Mueller, too, said officials familiar with the incident.
OVAL OFFICE IRE
Trump was upset about what he believed was Mueller’s alleged conflicts—his interest in replacing Comey as FBI director, Mueller’s resignation from a Trump-owned golf club and political affiliations at Mueller’s law firm —and talked to his lawyers about them, they said.
His lawyers convinced him it was a bad idea and eventually Trump pledged to work with Mueller’s office, which they said he has done.
At the same time, the officials said that Trump discussed possibly firing Mueller with his friends.
Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax Media and a friend of Trump, told the PBS NewsHour in June:
“I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he’s weighing that option … I personally think it would be a very significant mistake.”
Yet legal analysts said the collective weight of Trump’s actions is pushing him closer to an ugly confrontation with the special counsel.
“The evidence is compelling of President Trump’s corrupt intent to thwart the Russia investigation and obstruct justice,” said University of Notre Dame law professor Jimmy Gurule, .
“Trump, by his own admission, fired former FBI Director James Comey because of the ‘Russia thing.’ One month later, the president attempted to fire Mueller, who was conducting the Russia investigation, said Gurule, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. “The only reasonable inference to draw is that Trump, with corrupt intent, attempted to obstruct and impede the due administration of justice, which is a federal crime.”
WASHINGTON — Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., challenged President Trump on Wednesday to invite all 100 senators for a “summit” to hash out a bipartisan health care bill.
“President Trump, I challenge you to invite us — all 100 of us, Republican and Democrat — to Blair House to discuss a new bipartisan way forward on health care in front of all the American people,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
He added that Democrats are “genuinely interested” in coming together with Republicans on health care, as long as Republicans abandon tax cuts for wealthier Americans and cuts to the Medicaid system.
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Since the Senate Republicans’ health care effort suddenly stalled Tuesday, Schumer has been needling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to scrap his bill and instead sit down with Democrats and work to improve the existing system. McConnell is reportedly attempting to hammer out a deal by Friday and set a vote on the bill when the Senate returns from its recess in July.
If McConnell can’t get his caucus in line, the Republican leader warned, he might have to “sit down” with Schumer as well.
Any real compromise seems distant at this point, though a handful of Republican and Democratic senators have shown a willingness to explore bipartisanship in the past. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bill Cassidy, R-La., met with more centrist Democrats Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., in May before giving up on those talks.
For his part, McConnell has largely been wielding the specter of working with Schumer as a threat to get his fractious caucus in line. McConnell needs 50 of the 52 GOP senators to agree on a deal, and so far, about 10 Republican senators — moderates and conservatives — have refused to get in line.
“It’ll be dealt with in one of two ways,” McConnell said Tuesday after emerging from a meeting with Trump. “Either Republicans will agree and change the status quo, or the markets will continue to collapse and we’ll have to sit down with Sen. Schumer. And my suspicion is that any negotiation with the Democrats would include none of the reforms that we would like to make, both on the market side and the Medicaid side.”
Schumer, who is known as a dealmaker, would have a lot of leverage if McConnell failed to broker a deal within his own party and came to him ready to talk. As McConnell warned, any agreement with Schumer would likely not contain the changes to Medicaid and insurance exchanges backed by conservative lawmakers in both the Senate and the House.
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“We’re the first to say we want to sit down and talk to you about it, but we are not going to be in a position where we say, ‘OK, only 15 million people will be uncovered, we’ll support that bill,’” Schumer said Tuesday. “That’s not the type of compromise we’re talking about. They really need some structural revision.”
Working with Schumer would mean Senate Republicans had not only failed to repeal Obamacare — as they had promised to do eight years running — but even worked with Democrats to prop it up.
The leader of a conservative group who didn’t wish to be quoted discussing the Senate negotiations said he couldn’t imagine McConnell cutting a deal with Democrats because such a capitulation would anger the GOP base. “It’s one thing working with Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling — working with Chuck Schumer to stabilize the Obamacare markets is something else,” he said. “I think that would hurt Republicans badly.”
But Trump himself could theoretically shake up that calculus. If he were to take Schumer up on his offer, or showed interest in working with Democrats to fix problems in the exchanges, Republicans would feel pressure to fall into line. But the president didn’t seem interested in Schumer’s offer Wednesday, telling reporters, “He hasn’t been serious…He just doesn’t seem like a serious person.”
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