U.S. President Donald Trump called on Attorney-General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday to end the special counsel’s inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, issuing a strikingly unambiguous directive on Twitter to shut down an investigation that even now is scrutinizing his tweets for possible evidence of obstruction.
The White House and Mr. Trump’s lawyers moved quickly to minimize the President’s statement, dismissing it as merely a case of venting and opining by a President who has grown increasingly angry and frustrated with an investigation he considers illegitimate – and not a direct order to a cabinet secretary to interfere with an ongoing federal law enforcement matter.
But in saying that Mr. Sessions, the top U.S. law enforcement official, should take specific action to terminate the investigation, the tweet crossed a line that Mr. Trump has until now, by design or otherwise, never explicitly crossed. It immediately raised more questions about whether Mr. Trump was attempting to obstruct justice, already an issue being examined extensively by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation.
The trial of Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, which entered its second day Wednesday, has made the stakes of Mueller’s investigation increasingly clear. And even as Mr. Trump was calling for the investigation to be ended, it was revealed that he had pushed his lawyers to make another attempt to reach an agreement to sit for an interview, an objective the President has long sought because of his belief that he can convince Mr. Mueller of his version of events.
But the morning tweet signified a new chapter in a remarkable, but by now familiar, public feud between the President and Mr. Sessions, the product of Mr. Trump’s rage and sense of betrayal at his Attorney-General for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry, which has made it impossible for him to control an investigation that Mr. Trump sees as an existential threat that undercuts his legitimacy.
“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” Mr. Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
It was an escalation even for Mr. Trump, who has long since discarded the traditional distance presidents have sought to maintain between themselves and open Justice Department investigations. Instead, Mr. Trump has repeatedly sought to undercut and delegitimize the Russia inquiry and those working on it, and has been outspoken about his rage and irritation with the investigation, much of it directed toward Mr. Sessions personally.
Mr. Trump has said he never would have made Mr. Sessions his attorney-general if he had known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from the inquiry, and that the very fact that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry still exists is “all because” Mr. Sessions had not informed him that he planned to step aside from the issue. Privately, Mr. Trump has been more direct, imploring Mr. Sessions in person to unrecuse himself so that he could maintain control of the investigation.
The President also ordered the firing of Mr. Mueller, instructing the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to do so last June, but ultimately backing down when Mr. McGahn refused.
Even so, before Wednesday, the President had never explicitly told Mr. Sessions publicly that he should move to end the inquiry. In a telephone interview on Wednesday after the President’s tweet, Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani, insisted that the President still had not given such an order, and did not intend to.
“It’s not a call to action,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that it was a sentiment that Mr. Trump and his lawyers had previously expressed publicly and one protected by the President’s constitutional right to free speech.
“He doesn’t feel that he has to intervene in the process, nor is he intervening,” Mr. Sekulow said.
Mr. Trump wanted the legal process to play out, his lawyers said. “He’s expressing his opinion, but he’s not talking of his special powers he has” as president, Mr. Giuliani said.
Mr. Mueller, appointed last year to oversee the government’s Russia investigation, is already looking into some of the President’s previous Twitter posts and public statements to determine whether they reflect an intent and pattern of conduct meant to obstruct his inquiry. But Mr. Giuliani dismissed the obstruction of justice concerns, calling them a “bizarre and novel theory of obstruction by tweet,” adding that it was “idiotic.”
Still, it was clear the President’s tweet had set off alarm bells among his legal team, which swung into action almost immediately to clarify and spin it in a more favourable light, proactively calling reporters from The New York Times and other news publications to explain.
Later, Mr. Giuliani said the fact that Mr. Trump had made the statement on Twitter, “a medium that he uses for opinions,” was proof that it should not be seen as an order. “One of the good things about using that is, he’s established a clear sort of practice now that he expresses his opinions on Twitter,” Mr. Giuliani told reporters.
But Mr. Trump has often used Twitter for policy directives designed to prompt official actions – such as when he used it last year to announce a ban of transgender troops from the U.S. military, or last week to announce he would impose sanctions on Turkey, which the Treasury Department announced Wednesday it had done at the President’s direction. He has also used the platform to tell members of his inner circle that they are fired, such as his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. And the White House has said in the past that because he is the president, Mr. Trump’s tweets are to be taken as official statements.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s tweet.
Even taken at face value, the President’s suggestion would be impossible. Mr. Sessions recused himself from in early 2017 from all 2016 election-related matters, in part to avoid the kind of conflicts Mr. Trump has proposed, and thus would not be in a position to make the call on whether or when to end the Russia inquiry.
The Mr. Mueller investigation has instead been overseen by the deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein. He and his principal deputy, Edward O’Callaghan, have fortnightly check-ins with the special counsel’s office. It is Mr. Rosenstein who has the power to approve or deny Mr. Mueller’s requests to bring charges.
Whether or not the President had given his Attorney-General a direct order, legal experts said that urging Mr. Sessions to end the inquiry was an unprecedented move, one that amounted to Mr. Trump asking Mr. Sessions to “subvert the law,” according to Matthew Axelrod, a long-time prosecutor who served in top roles in the Obama administration Justice Department.
“What he’s saying here is that there’s no one who ought to be able to investigate his actions and, if necessary, hold him accountable for those actions,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Mr. Axelrod said this request of Mr. Sessions was part of a larger pattern – one in which Mr. Trump attacked the integrity of the special counsel, attacked the media and attacked the courts, “all institutions designed to provide checks on executive authority and executive overreach,” he said.
If nothing else, the tweet underscored the ongoing rupture between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions, once close allies who now have a deeply dysfunctional relationship and rarely talk.
At a small ceremony at the Justice Department last month, Mr. Sessions described a photo of himself and Mr. Trump, in which the President was pointing amiably at his top law enforcement officer, a gesture Mr. Sessions replicated while posing for pictures with some of those gathered for the occasion.
He treasured that picture, Mr. Sessions said to no one in particular, according to an attendee – sort of.