Trump signals cooperative approach with Mueller is fading
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signaled a more confrontational legal strategy against the special counsel’s Russia probe on Monday, ripping into what he dismissed as an investigation into a “made up, phony crime.”
His series of tweets were fresh evidence that the cooperative approach with special counsel Robert Mueller that had been advocated by the president’s legal team for months has gone by the wayside. It also revealed the president’s anxiety about how the investigation could sway voters as they decide whether to keep congressional Republicans in power or force him to face an aggressive Democratic majority.
Trump’s new lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has used a string of media appearances over the past week to cast the probe as a “totally garbage investigation.” And Giuliani has called into question whether Trump would be treated fairly by Mueller’s prosecutors if he were to agree to an interview.
No decision has been made on whether to permit the president to sit for an interview, but a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly on it told The Associated Press that the legal team hopes to resolve that question by May 17, the one-year anniversary of Mueller’s appointment. Giuliani earlier told The Wall Street Journal that the team hopes to decide by that date.
Mueller’s team is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with Trump associates as well as whether the president obstructed justice. So far, the special counsel’s office has charged 19 people — including four Trump campaign advisers — and three Russian companies.
On Monday, Trump seized on Giuliani’s message, focusing on what he sees as the conflicts of interest on Mueller’s team.
“The 13 Angry Democrats in charge of the Russian Witch Hunt are starting to find out that there is a Court System in place that actually protects people from injustice...and just wait ’till the Courts get to see your unrevealed Conflicts of Interest!” he wrote.
Trump appeared to be drawing attention to a federal judge’s questioning last week of Mueller’s authority in a case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. But it was unclear what legal action Trump was referring to that would touch on “unrevealed” conflicts of interest.
Mueller is a longtime Republican, but some members of his team have made political contributions to Democrats, including to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 election.
Mueller could not have barred them from serving on the team based solely on their political contributions. Federal regulations and Justice Department policy prohibit the consideration of political affiliation in hiring and other personnel actions involving career attorneys.
In congressional testimony, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has defended Mueller’s team against criticism that it was politically tainted.
“We recognize we have employees with political opinions. And it’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Rosenstein said, adding: “I believe that Director Mueller understands that and that he is running that office appropriately.”
Mueller’s investigation has operated largely in secrecy with the public only getting glimpses into its operation through witnesses who are questioned or when indictments and guilty pleas are publicly unsealed.
It’s unclear when the investigation will conclude, a fact that Trump seized on as he worried that it could affect Republican chances in the November midterm elections.
“Is this Phony Witch Hunt going to go on even longer so it wrongfully impacts the Mid-Term Elections, which is what the Democrats always intended?” Trump tweeted. “Republicans better get tough and smart before it is too late.”
Democratic majorities in either the House or Senate would give the president’s political opponents subpoena power to investigate the administration. And White House officials have privately expressed concerns that Republicans may lose the House in November.
Asked about the tweet on Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was referring to “the fact that we’re still talking about it.”
Sanders said, “I think the point he’s making is how ridiculous it is that we’re still having this conversation and the depths to which this research has gone on and investigation has been conducted and still produced nothing.”
In his tweets, Trump also took issue with Mueller’s investigation into whether he obstructed the Russia investigation. To that, Trump wrote, “There is no O, it’s called Fighting Back.”
He also criticized FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok, who made headlines for exchanging derogatory text messages about Trump. Trump noted that Page has left the bureau and asked, “Why is Peter S still there? What a total mess. Our Country has to get back to Business!”
Text messages between Page and Strzok, who was assigned to Mueller’s investigation, show them expressing negative views about Trump and referring to him in derogatory ways. Strzok was reassigned from the special counsel team after the text messages were brought to Mueller’s attention. Page had already left the Mueller team.
Rosenstein has said that Mueller handled the matter appropriately.
“When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. That’s what Mr. Mueller did here,” Rosenstein said. “As soon as he learned about this issue, he took action.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.