WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Sunday questioned the impartiality of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary [Clinton] supporters, and Zero Republicans?" Trump asked early Sunday on Twitter. Saying that the team had recently added another Democrat, Trump asked, "Does anyone think this is fair?"
Some of Mueller's investigators have contributed to Democratic political candidates, but Justice Department policy and federal service laws bar discrimination in the hiring of career positions on the basis of political affiliation. Mueller is a Republican who served as FBI director after being appointed by President George W. Bush.
Sunday's tweet was only the second time Trump had singled out Mueller by name on Twitter. The first came Saturday, when Trump wrote, "The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime."
Lawyers had previously advised Trump not to directly criticize Mueller for fear of aggravating prosecutors. The lawyers, who have been negotiating terms for Mueller to interview the president, had assured Trump for most of last year that the investigation would wrap up by the end of 2017, said a person familiar with the matter.
However, there are strong signals that the special counsel and his team of 17 prosecutors have more work ahead of them.
A top adviser to Trump said Sunday that the White House has grown weary of the inquiry.
"We have cooperated in every single way, every single paper they've asked for, every single interview," Marc Short, the president's legislative director, said on CBS' Face the Nation.
Short noted that the investigation has been going on for more than a year and that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have already concluded that there was no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
"I think at some point the American people are owed an answer to say, 'OK, if there was no collusion, how much longer will this drag on?'" he said.
Aides and friends say they understand Trump's frustration with an investigation that hangs over his presidency.
"When he says it's a political witch hunt, I think he's right," said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive officer of the conservative news website Newsmax and a longtime Trump friend.
LAWYER SPEAKS OUT
Trump's legal team -- namely attorney Ty Cobb -- has counseled the president to cooperate with Mueller. Cobb said late Sunday that Trump is not thinking about or talking about firing the special counsel.
"In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the Administration, the White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller," Cobb said in a written statement.
Cobb spoke out after a day in which many Senate Republicans cautioned Trump against doing anything to curtail Mueller's investigation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., repeated a previous comment that removing Mueller would be the beginning of the end of Trump's presidency.
"[Mueller] is following the evidence where it takes him, and I think it's very important he be allowed to do his job without interference," Graham said on CNN's State of the Union. "There are many Republicans who share my view."
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he doesn't see Trump firing Mueller.
"The clearest thing that I can explain from that is the president's exceptionally frustrated, that he wants to be able to see this investigation come to an end," Lankford said on ABC's This Week.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent critic of Trump, said he expects that his colleagues would resist if the president tried to remove Mueller.
"People see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed," Flake said on CNN. "I hope that the pushback is now to keep the president from going there."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., warned of dire repercussions if the president tried to remove the special counsel. Trump cannot directly fire Mueller, who can only be dismissed for cause. Any dismissal of Mueller would have to be carried out by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has publicly expressed his support for the special counsel.
However, Trump can order Attorney General Jeff Sessions to tell Rosenstein to fire Mueller. Gowdy said Trump could fire Sessions, Rosenstein or both if they refused.
"The president's going to have a really difficult time nominating and having approved another attorney general," Gowdy said on Fox News Sunday. "I would just counsel the president -- it's going to be a very, very long, bad 2018. It's going to be distracting from other things that he wants to do and he was elected do. Let it play out its course. If you've done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible."
CRITICISM OF McCABE
Trump also used Twitter to challenge the honesty of Andrew McCabe, the fired FBI deputy director, and James Comey, the bureau's former director. The Associated Press reported that McCabe kept personal memos detailing his interactions with Trump -- memos that were similar to notes compiled by Comey.
"Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me," Trump tweeted Sunday. "I don't believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?"
Comey had been supervising the investigation into Russian interference until Trump fired him last year, citing Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email practices. A Trump confidant who asked not to be named said the president believes Comey will seek to enrich himself by besmirching Trump's reputation. Comey's book, A Higher Loyalty, will be released next month, and it topped Amazon.com's best-seller list on Sunday.
Given McCabe's role as a witness with details about Comey's firing, his termination could add to an obstruction of justice case against Trump, said William Yeomans, a 26-year Justice Department veteran who's served as an acting assistant attorney general. Sessions fired McCabe late Friday, ahead of his planned retirement on Sunday at age 50, a move that Trump celebrated on Twitter as a "a great day for Democracy."
"If anybody had any doubts about the integrity of this process, they were put to rest by the president's tweet, which basically announced he had forced this, and it was a good thing that this long-serving FBI employee who had done some wonderful things during his career was going to be forced out two days before he qualified for his retirement," Yeomans said in an interview.
Sessions said he was responding to a report by the Justice Department's inspector general and finding by the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility. Those offices found that McCabe hadn't been fully forthcoming with investigators in discussing his contacts with a reporter, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department attorney now serving as one of McCabe's lawyers, said the veteran FBI agent was fired after the disclosure that he's a cooperating witness against Trump.
Now that McCabe has lost his job and possibly a substantial portion of the pension accrued in more than two decades with the FBI, he has little reason not to speak out, Bromwich said.
McCabe is "a loose cannon right now. Talk about a guy who has nothing to lose -- literally, nothing to lose," said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who's now managing director of the international investigation firm Berkeley Research Group LLC. "If he was holding anything back out of loyalty to the FBI or a sense of duty -- well, that just walked out the door. If he has any information he hasn't revealed out of a sense of loyalty, that might be told now."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Sunday that McCabe's firing risks demoralizing and "smearing" agents.
"He should have been allowed to finish through the weekend," Rubio said on NBC's Meet the Press. "I would've certainly done it differently."
Asked whether he's concerned about the damage done to the FBI's reputation, Rubio said there are ways to hold people accountable but that "we need to be very careful about taking these very important entities and smearing everybody in them with a broad stroke."
"Obviously [the president] doesn't like McCabe, and he's made that pretty clear now for over a year," Rubio said.
McCabe, who joined the FBI in 1996, helped oversee the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email practices in 2016. However, Trump has argued that McCabe was tainted because his wife ran for the Virginia state Senate as a Democrat in 2015. During her losing campaign, Jill McCabe received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from an organization controlled by Terry McAuliffe, then the Virginia governor and a longtime friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Information for this article was contributed by Darlene Superville, Chad Day, Eric Tucker and Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press; by Mark Niquette, Shannon Pettypiece, Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Chris Strohm, Toluse Olorunnipa and Janet Ong of Bloomberg News; and by Peter Baker of The New York Times.
A Section on 03/19/2018
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