Bipartisan 14-7 vote by Senate Judiciary Committee proposed legislation aimed at protecting special counsel
Trump says he may curb Russia probe as Mueller bill advances
President Donald Trump hinted he may intervene in the justice department’s Russia investigation, as a Senate panel advanced a measure to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.
“They have a witch hunt against the president of the United States going on,” Mr Trump said Thursday on the Fox and Friends morning TV programme. “I’ve taken the position – and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I’ll change – that I will not be involved with the justice department. I will wait until this is over. It’s a total – it’s all lies and it’s a horrible thing that’s going on.”
It was one of the president’s strongest hints yet that he might act to constrain or end Mr Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, whether anyone close to Mr Trump colluded in it and whether the president obstructed justice in the matter.
Lawmakers of both parties have warned him that firing Mr Mueller would create a constitutional crisis, and that was reflected in a bipartisan, 14-7 vote Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee for legislation aimed at protecting him from being fired without cause.
The action may prove largely symbolic because Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said it won’t get a vote on the Senate floor and there are questions about the measure’s constitutionality.
Attorney general Jeff Sessions, who the president has criticised and denounced for recusing himself from the Russia probe, said Thursday that he’s sympathetic to Trump’s complaints.
“The president is concerned,” Mr Sessions told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “He’s dealing with France and North Korea and Syria and taxes and regulations and border and crime every day. I wish – this thing needs to conclude. I understand his frustrations and I understand the American people’s frustrations.”
The president’s comments in a phone interview on the Fox News program centred on his allegation that former FBI director James Comey, who Mr Trump fired, is guilty of leaking classified information to prompt appointment of a special counsel.
“He leaked classified information in order to try and get a special counsel,” the president said of Comey. “He is guilty of crimes and if we had a justice department that was doing their job instead of spending $8 million trying to find…”
“It’s your justice department!” a Fox host said, interrupting Mr Trump.
“You’re right,” the president responded before lashing out at the department.
“I’m very disappointed in my justice department,” he said.
Mr Trump’s comments were lambasted by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a senior member of the judiciary committee, who said in a tweet, “Mr. President, it’s not YOUR Justice Department. It’s the AMERICAN PEOPLE’S Justice Department. And you’ve already improperly interfered with it more than any president since Nixon. Your rant this morning undermines the rule of law.”
In the interview, the president was asked if he’d sit down with Mr Mueller’s team. He said he would be willing to if he was able, although he said that some of the people involved are “conflicted.”
“If you take a look, they’re so conflicted. The people that are doing the investigation – you have 13 people that are Democrats. You have Hillary Clinton people, you have people who have worked on Hillary Clinton’s foundation,’’ Mr Trump said. “I love the FBI, the FBI loves me. But the top people in the FBI, headed by Comey, were crooked.”
Mr Trump had praised the former FBI man for his honourable conduct during the 2016 campaign, solicited his loyalty, and asked him to let go of an investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to memos turned over to House lawmakers last week that Mr Comey wrote to document private conversations between the two.
After the contents of the memos were released, Mr Trump wrote on Twitter that they “show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION.”
The pair have traded shots since the days before the release of the former lawman’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. Mr Trump has called Mr Comey a “slimeball” and accused him of improperly leaking information. Last week, the president called the book “third-rate” and lamented that Mr Flynn’s life was destroyed while “Shadey James Comey” can make lots of money.
Mr Comey has said he didn’t leak any classified information when he provided one of his memos to a friend. As recently as a CNN town hall on Wednesday night, he said the president isn’t morally fit for office.