Senior Trump administration officials insisted on Sunday the president was not preparing to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating alleged collusion between Trump aides and Russia during the 2016 election.
“There’s no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House,” said director of legislative affairs Marc Short.
Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, said: “I was at dinner last night with the president and the vice-president, I haven’t heard anything about any firing.”
Both men were, however, critical of the investigation, which Mnuchin said had become “a giant distraction”. The treasury secretary also said that though he did not “have any reason to think that the president” would fire Mueller, “that’s obviously up to him”.
Short and Mnuchin spoke, to NBC and CNN respectively, after the website Axios reported on Saturday that Mueller has gained access to thousands of emails sent and received by 13 senior Trump aides before and during the presidential transition.
Citing “people familiar with the transition organisation”, the Associated Press said the emails were transferred to Mueller’s team in September, a move of which the Trump team was not aware.
On Saturday, an attorney for Trump’s transition team sent a letter to two Republican committee chairmen in Congress, claiming the emails were provided to Mueller improperly.
Mueller was prompted to release a rare statement to the press, in which spokesman Peter Carr said: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”
Analysts said the Trump lawyer’s letter was a political move rather than a sound legal gambit. A spokesman for the government agency which provided the emails to Mueller told BuzzFeed “no expectation of privacy” could be assumed by the Trump transition team.
Mueller was appointed in May, after Trump fired his successor as FBI director, James Comey. The special counsel has indicted four Trump aides, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chair Paul Manafort, and is generally thought to be closing in on the president’s inner circle. Speculation over Trump’s next move is rife.
So far, other than issuing characteristic attacks on Twitter, the president has fought something of a proxy war. After it was reported that Mueller removed from his team an FBI agent who sent text messages critical of Trump, Republicans in Congress, White House staffers and supportive Fox News hosts have amped up accusations of anti-Trump bias in Mueller’s team and the FBI.
Senior Democrats have voiced concern about what actions such increasingly heated rhetoric might herald. On Friday, Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said he thought Republicans were seeking to shut down that panel’s Russia investigation.
The California congresswoman Jackie Speier, meanwhile, told TV station KQED News: “The rumor on [Capitol] Hill when I left yesterday was that the president was going to make a significant speech at the end of next week. And on [Friday], when we are out of DC, he was going to fire Robert Mueller.”
On Sunday, the Texas Republican senator John Cornyn told ABC’s Week that move would be a “mistake”. Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic senator from Maryland, told the same network Republicans should should not support “a concerted effort out of the White House” that was aimed at “subverting” Mueller’s work.
Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Short insisted there was no such effort and said: “The reality is that this administration has complied in every possible way with the special counsel.”
He added: “Taxpayers have spent millions and millions of dollars on this investigation and it has not yet proven any sense of collusion with the Russians. I think the American people are ready to turn the page.”
An Associated Press poll released on Friday appeared to contradict Short’s claim. Nearly half (47%) of all respondents said they were “extremely or very concerned about whether Trump or others involved with his campaign had inappropriate contacts with the Russian government”.
Another key element of the Mueller investigation is whether Trump has attempted to obstruct justice, whether by firing Comey or, according to Comey’s testimony, seeking to have investigations of Flynn dropped when he knew his adviser had lied to the FBI, the offence to which Flynn has now pleaded guilty.
Among respondents to the AP poll, 63% thought that Trump did attempt to obstruct the Mueller investigation.
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