Special counsel Robert Mueller has been told of two discussions between President Donald Trump and witnesses central to the Russia probe, according to a person familiar with the issue.
Trump earlier this year approached White House counsel Don McGahn in the Oval Office and questioned why he wouldn’t publicly dispute a New York Times story published in January that reported the president had ordered him to fire Mueller.
The president said to McGahn that he’d made no such request, but McGahn responded that Trump had indeed pressed him last June to call on Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to examine potential grounds for ousting the special counsel.
That Oval Office encounter — first reported Wednesday night by the New York Times and confirmed by POLITICO — happened after Trump first asked one of his aides to get McGahn to issue a statement denying the original Times article.
If McGahn refused the staffer, Trump told the aide, then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, that they could look for ways to have McGahn fired.
Mueller also has been informed of another Trump conversation about the Russia probe involving Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff who was fired last summer. The president in the exchange with Priebus asked how the special counsel’s prosecutors had treated him during a daylong October interview.
Mueller’s office declined comment about the president’s conversations with his current and former aides. White House attorney Ty Cobb and William Burck, the personal attorney representing both McGahn and Priebus, also declined comment.
Trump’s casual interactions with both current and former aides in matters regarding the Russia probe have been a challenge for his lawyers for months.
POLITICO last Thursday reported that Trump had been ignoring warnings from his attorneys to avoid discussing Russia with anyone beyond his legal team. The lawyers have described a “bright line” that the president shouldn’t cross, otherwise he could put his staff in legal jeopardy, according to current and former Trump aides.
But Trump has been especially casual in talking about the Russia case, including in front of Hope Hicks, the outgoing White House communications director, who he’s told could be “on both sides of the [bright] line.”
“I think the president has put her in a very precarious position,” said a senior Trump administration official.
A former Trump aide who said he’d experienced the president’s lack of discipline on Russia issues firsthand said “part of the problem in this White House is you have, every day, people who engage in matters concerning this investigation.”
“That is problematic, because not only does it distract from the work that taxpayers are paying them to do, but it also — in certain instances — can make them witnesses or potentially targets of the investigation. That’s really dangerous,” the aide added.
Mueller’s Russia probe, launched last May, spans a wide range of issues, from Russian meddling in the election to a potential obstruction of justice case involving the president.
Elizabeth de la Vega, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Northern District of California, said the president’s casual conversations about the Russia probe could “add to the mountain of evidence of obstruction that already exists.”
“When the subject of an investigation is the president of the United States and the witnesses he is quizzing about, and even challenging the substance of, their testimony are his subordinates, such conversations are very, very troubling,” she said. “Any prosecutor would see them as potential overt acts in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.”