President Donald Trump enlisted the White House counsel to try to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation, according to a New York Times report that is likely to fuel questions as to whether the president attempted to obstruct justice in the probe.
Mike Schmidt of the Times describes the president’s fury over what he saw as the attorney general’s failure to shield him and recounts how Trump’s aides tried to keep him from acting out as the FBI and Justice Department probe gained traction last year.
The report also offers new details surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly examining for possible obstruction of justice by the president. These new details will likely add even more fuel to that investigation.
Here are the key revelations from the report, which span a two-month period leading up to the appointment of Mueller:
- President Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to convince Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, after revelations in March that Sessions failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. According to the Times, McGahn argued that Sessions didn’t have to step away until the investigation was further along, and that his recusal wouldn’t prevent Democratic attacks. McGahn backed away from his request after Sessions resisted.
- Sessions’s recusal enraged the president, who believed his attorney general should have done more to protect him. Trump seemed convinced that former President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, had shielded Obama — a conviction Trump related to Schmidt during an interview the Times published last month.
- A White House attorney purposely withheld information from Trump regarding his ability to fire the FBI director, falsely telling the president he needed cause to ax Comey. According to the Times:
The lawyer, Uttam Dhillon, was convinced that if Mr. Comey was fired, the Trump presidency could be imperiled, because it would force the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether Mr. Trump was trying to derail the Russia investigation.
- The Times reports that four days before Comey’s dismissal, aides to Jeff Sessions approached an unidentified congressional staffer seeking dirt on Comey. The apparent goal was to leak that information to the press in an attempt to discredit the FBI director.
- Mueller has reportedly obtained notes written by former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that describe the president’s attempts to pressure Comey to say publicly that Trump was not under investigation. Priebus’s notes would help corroborate Comey’s previous testimony.
These latest revelations add to the mounting evidence that Trump, deeply vexed by the Russia investigation, actively tried to stymie it. Legal experts are divided on the issue. But some told the Times that the new revelations, even when combined with what is already known, still might not rise to the level of obstruction of justice. Trump does have the power to hire and fire executive branch officials at will.
Trump’s attorneys have argued that the president can’t obstruct justice because he’s essentially the top law enforcement official. The argument isn’t new; Richard Nixon’s lawyers also advanced that argument. But legal experts largely disagree that the president is immune from obstruction of justice charges — though the recourse to address such alleged crimes may be impeachment, rather than a criminal prosecution.