No end in sight for mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Des­mond But­ler Des­mond But­ler is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

WASHINGTON — Late last year, lawyers for Pres­i­dent Trump ex­pressed op­ti­mism that spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller was near­ing the end of his probe of Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion.

But if there was hope in the White House that Trump might be mov­ing past an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has dogged his pres­i­dency from the start, 2018 is be­gin­ning with­out signs of abate­ment. In fact, the new year set off a flurry of de­vel­op­ments in the probes by Mueller and Congress rang­ing in im­por­tance from the mi­nor to the omi­nous.

In a re­mark­able broad­side against a fel­low con­ser­va­tive, two Repub­li­can House mem­bers called on At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions to re­sign, crit­i­ciz­ing his Jus­tice Depart­ment for not co­op­er­at­ing with Congress and for leaks re­lated to its Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Reps. Mark Mead­ows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio crit­i­cized Ses­sions in an opin­ion piece pub­lished Jan. 4 on the Washington Ex­am­iner’s web­site. The head­line said: “It’s time for Jeff Ses­sions to go.”

They wrote that Ses­sions “has re­cused him­self from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but it would ap­pear he has no con­trol at all of the pre­mier law en­force­ment agency in the world.”

Ses­sions, who was part of Trump’s presidential cam­paign, stepped aside last year from the depart­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion. Ses­sions’ deputy, Rod Rosen­stein, later ap­pointed Mueller to take over the probe. A Ses­sions res­ig­na­tion would al­low Trump to ap­point a new at­tor­ney gen­eral, who would as­sume over­sight of the probe from Rosen­stein.

A day af­ter the law­mak­ers’ opin­ion piece, it emerged that Trump had tried to keep Ses­sions from re­cus­ing him­self. The report that Trump di­rected his White House coun­sel, Don McGahn, to press Ses­sions just be­fore he an­nounced he would step aside added a new layer for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The episode is known to Mueller and his team of pros­e­cu­tors and is likely of in­ter­est to them as they look into whether Trump’s ac­tions as pres­i­dent, in­clud­ing the May fir­ing of FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, amount to im­proper ef­forts to ob­struct the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In­ves­ti­ga­tors re­cently con­cluded a round of in­ter­views with cur­rent and for­mer White House of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing McGahn.

Last week, it emerged that Mueller’s team has broached the prospect of an in­ter­view with Trump, prompt­ing spec­u­la­tion about when, or if, that might hap­pen and un­der what terms.

The As­so­ci­ated Press and other news or­ga­ni­za­tions re­ported that Mueller had in­di­cated in­ter­est in even­tu­ally speak­ing with Trump as the team in­ves­ti­gates pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign and the po­ten­tial of ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

Although White House lawyers have pledged their co­op­er­a­tion in the past sev­eral months, Trump said last week that it “seems un­likely” that he’ll be in­ter­viewed and that “we’ll see what hap­pens.”

In a sign that con­gres­sional probes are be­com­ing ever more par­ti­san, the top Demo­crat on the Sen­ate Judiciary Com­mit­tee broke with the panel’s Repub­li­can chair­man Tues­day by re­leas­ing on her own the tran­script of a closed-door in­ter­view with Glenn Simp­son. He is the co­founder of a po­lit­i­cal re­search firm that com­mis­sioned what be­came a dossier of al­le­ga­tions about Trump’s presidential cam­paign and Rus­sia.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she acted be­cause “the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­serve the op­por­tu­nity to see what he said and judge for them­selves,” though com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, called the move “con­found­ing” and said it could un­der­mine at­tempts to in­ter­view ad­di­tional wit­nesses.

Ac­cord­ing to the tran­script, Simp­son said the for­mer Bri­tish spy who put to­gether the dossier — es­sen­tially a com­pi­la­tion of memos — brought the doc­u­ment to the FBI in July 2016 be­cause he was wor­ried about “whether a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date was be­ing black­mailed.” Ac­cord­ing to Simp­son, ex-spy Christo­pher Steele flew to Rome to meet an FBI agent sta­tioned there for his sec­ond de­brief­ing be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion. He said the FBI con­tact told Steele that there was renewed in­ter­est in his re­search be­cause the bureau had cor­rob­o­rated some of the ma­te­rial. That tes­ti­mony un­der­cut Repub­li­can al­le­ga­tions that the dossier ini­ti­ated the FBI’s Rus­sia probe.

Trump has dis­missed the dossier as false and a po­lit­i­cal hit job, and sev­eral Repub­li­can-led con­gres­sional com­mit­tees are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the role the dossier played in the ini­tial stages of the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In a tweet Wed­nes­day, Trump ac­cused Feinstein of be­ing “un­der­handed and a dis­grace” for dis­clos­ing de­tails of Simp­son’s tes­ti­mony about the dossier and its al­le­ga­tions about his ties to Rus­sia dur­ing the presidential cam­paign.

J. Scott Ap­ple­white / As­so­ci­ated Press 2017

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller has broached the prospect of in­ter­view­ing Pres­i­dent Trump, prompt­ing spec­u­la­tion about when, or if, that might hap­pen.

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