In­ter­views with top aides sought

Meet­ings, notes, Comey fir­ing re­ported to be Mueller fo­cus

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - MICHAEL S. SCH­MIDT In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Adam Gold­man, Matt Apuzzo and Mag­gie Haber­man of The New York Times.

WASH­ING­TON — Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller, who is in charge of a wide-rang­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, is in talks with the West Wing about in­ter­view­ing cur­rent and for­mer se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple briefed on the dis­cus­sions. That in­cludes the re­cently ousted White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, the peo­ple said.

Mueller has asked the White House about spe­cific meet­ings, who at­tended them and whether there are any notes, tran­scripts or doc­u­ments about them, two of the peo­ple said. Among the mat­ters Mueller wants to ask the of­fi­cials about is Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion in May to fire the FBI di­rec­tor, James Comey, the two peo­ple said.

That line of ques­tion­ing will be im­por­tant as Mueller con­tin­ues to in­ves­ti­gate whether Trump ob­structed jus­tice in the dis­missal of Comey.

No in­ter­views have been sched­uled, but in re­cent weeks Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion has ap­peared to in­ten­sify. Late last month, a search was ex­e­cuted at the home of Paul Manafort, Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man, in Alexan­dria, Va. Le­gal ex­perts say Mueller may be try­ing to put pres­sure on Manafort to co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Ty Cobb, a spe­cial coun­sel to the pres­i­dent, de­clined to com­ment, say­ing only that the White House would “con­tinue to fully co­op­er­ate” with Mueller’s in­quiry. He has fre­quently said that the White House will co­op­er­ate with Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion and that he hopes it will be com­pleted quickly. Priebus did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment.

Mueller has ex­pressed in­ter­est in speak­ing with other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team. But Trump’s al­lies are par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about Mueller’s in­ter­est in talk­ing to Priebus, a for­mer chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee who worked closely with Trump dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Trump’s con­fi­dants at the White House say Trump was never fully con­vinced that Priebus would be loyal to him.

Shortly af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion, Priebus was made chief of staff, and he was in­volved in the ma­jor de­ci­sions the pres­i­dent made dur­ing the tran­si­tion and in the first six months of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump fired him last month.

Priebus can po­ten­tially an­swer many ques­tions Mueller has about what oc­curred dur­ing the cam­paign and in the White House. Priebus ap­pears on the cal­en­dar of Manafort on the same day in June 2016 that Manafort and other cam­paign of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing Trump’s el­dest son and son-in-law — at­tended a meet­ing with Rus­sians who claimed to have dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Hil­lary Clin­ton, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple briefed on the mat­ter. It is not clear whether Priebus and Manafort did meet that day.

Ac­cord­ing to a law en­force­ment of­fi­cial briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Comey met with Priebus at the White House on Feb. 8 — a week be­fore Comey said Trump asked him to end an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Michael Flynn. In Comey’s meet­ing with Priebus, Comey told Priebus about a Jus­tice De­part­ment pol­icy that largely bars dis­cus­sions be­tween White House of­fi­cials and the FBI about con­tin­u­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions in or­der to pre­vent po­lit­i­cal med­dling — or at least the ap­pear­ance of it — in the bureau’s work, ac­cord­ing to the law en­force­ment of­fi­cial.

It is not clear whether Priebus ever re­layed that mes­sage to the pres­i­dent. Trump’s Repub­li­can al­lies — in­clud­ing the House speaker, Paul Ryan — have said that Trump may have asked Comey to end the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause he was a new pres­i­dent who did not un­der­stand the sub­tleties of how the com­man­der in chief should in­ter­act with the FBI.

Priebus also may be able to help pros­e­cu­tors ver­ify cru­cial de­tails about Trump’s in­ter­ac­tions with Comey. Ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony Comey pro­vided to Congress, Priebus knows that Comey had the one- on- one en­counter with Trump on Feb. 14, when Comey has said Trump asked him to end the Flynn in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Trump has said that the meet­ing did not oc­cur and that he did not ask Comey to end the in­quiry.

Comey said in his tes­ti­mony to Congress that on Feb. 14, Trump had Priebus, the at­tor­ney gen­eral, the vice pres­i­dent and other se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials re­moved from the Oval Of­fice af­ter a coun­tert­er­ror­ism brief­ing.

“The pres­i­dent be­gan by say­ing Flynn hadn’t done any­thing wrong in speak­ing with the Rus­sians, but he had to let him go be­cause he had mis­led the vice pres­i­dent,” Comey said.

“The pres­i­dent then made a long se­ries of com­ments about the prob­lem with leaks of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion — a con­cern I shared and still share. Af­ter he had spo­ken for a few min­utes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grand­fa­ther clock and I could see a group of peo­ple wait­ing be­hind him. The pres­i­dent waved at him to close the door, say­ing he would be done shortly. The door closed.”

Right af­ter the door closed, Comey said, Trump asked him to end the Flynn in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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