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Mueller is reportedly investigating Trump’s threats to fire Jeff Sessions

The president’s public bashing might factor into the obstruction of justice probe.

Jeff Sessions CQ Roll Call/Bill Clark
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Add another item to the list of things that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating: President Donald Trump’s public humiliation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the summer of 2017.

The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey, and Rosalind S. Helderman report that Mueller is specifically interested in whether Trump’s apparent frustration with his “beleaguered A.G.” was part of a larger effort to force Sessions out or get him to quit in order to install a friendlier attorney general in the Justice Department, one who didn’t have to recuse himself or herself from the Russia probe.

Here’s how the Post sums it up:

In mid-July, Trump started escalating his public criticisms of Sessions, including angry tweets. Around that time, according to people familiar with internal White House discussions, the president discussed firing Sessions or forcing him out of the Justice Department. Those discussions are of particular interest to Mueller’s investigators, as they seek to determine the president’s intentions, according to a person familiar with the probe.

Trump’s fury at Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from what he calls the Russia “hoax” — which put Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge — is well-documented. “If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president,” Trump told the New York Times in July.

Around that time, Trump began to relentlessly torment Sessions on Twitter, which, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, “sure looks like President Donald Trump is waging a deliberate public campaign to push his own attorney general to resign.”

The theory went that with Sessions gone, Trump could install a friendly attorney general who didn’t have to recuse himself from a Russia investigation and who would then become Mueller’s boss — and could stymie the special counsel’s work.

So Trump’s antipathy toward Sessions is nothing new, and the New York Times reported in January that Mueller was looking at Trump’s decision to dispatch White House counsel Don McGahn to try to prevent Sessions from recusing himself from the investigation. McGahn failed, but the incident fueled questions about whether the president tried to obstruct justice.

The Washington Post’s latest story builds on that, revealing that Mueller is looking at whether Trump’s ridicule of Sessions fits into a larger attempt to force out his attorney general. The report also offered some details about how Trump makes fun of Sessions behind his back: He calls him Mr. Magoo and has complained to “associates that he has hired the best lawyers for his entire life, but is stuck with Sessions, who is not defending him and is not sufficiently loyal.”

Mueller might be looking at the past — but the Sessions-Trump drama is still raging

While Mueller is examining the Sessions-Trump saga of last summer, tension between the president and his top Justice official is still brewing. On Wednesday, Trump criticized his attorney general again, after Sessions said he would refer any questions about the FBI’s handling of the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page to the inspector general for investigation (otherwise known as the claims in the Nunes memo).

Sessions, who normally quietly withstands the president’s vitriol, actually fired back this time, saying that he “initiated the appropriate process.”

”As long as I am the Attorney General,” Sessions said, “I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”

On Wednesday night, Axios spotted Sessions dining with his top colleagues at the Justice Department: his deputy, Rosenstein, and Solicitor General Noel Francisco. Axios called it a “show of solidarity.”

What does this all mean for Trump and the Russia investigation?

The president has the power to hire and fire executive branch officials at will. But things get a little tricky if Trump is doing so to interfere with an investigation he doesn’t like. His intent may go toward determining whether he obstructed justice.

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 criminal prosecution.

Trump’s lawyers have continued to say publicly — mostly for Trump’s benefit — that the Mueller probe is wrapping up soon. The special counsel has brought more than 100 charges so far in the wide-reaching investigation, indicting 19 people and three companies. On Tuesday, CNN reported that Mueller is also looking into Trump’s business dealings in Moscow. Rather than nearing an end, Mueller’s list seems to be getting longer.

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