- The special counsel Robert Mueller has requested documents from the Justice Department related to the firing of James Comey as FBI director and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from matters involving the Russia investigation.
- The documents could help Mueller determine whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct justice when he fired Comey in May.
- Comey was leading the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to influence the outcome.
The special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the Justice Department to hand over thousands of documents related to the firing of James Comey as FBI director, including any communications between the White House and the department around the time that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s election interference.
ABC News reported late Sunday that the document request came amid Mueller’s continuing examination of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired Comey, who was leading the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the election.
The request for emails between the White House and the DOJ related to Sessions’ recusal could help Mueller determine why Trump has expressed anger at Sessions relinquishing control over the campaign-related investigations to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in March.
Sessions recused himself after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose that he had at least two meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the US during the campaign.
“Earlier reports indicated that Trump exploded when he found out about his recusal,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. “That could be evidence of his state of mind because it is a highly unusual reaction to a recusal decision.”
William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department, said in an email that “hanging over” the decision to fire Comey were “questions of the propriety of Sessions’ participation, given his recusal from the Russia investigation and Trump’s later statements that he was thinking of Russia” when he fired the FBI director.
“This episode also highlights Rosenstein’s difficult position,” Yeomans said. “He continues to supervise an investigation in which he appears to be (though we don’t know for sure) an increasingly significant witness.”
Trump told The New York Times in July that “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should’ve told me before he took the job so I could choose someone else.”
About a week later, he called Sessions “beleaguered” and asked why the Justice Department and Congress weren’t investigating “Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations.” The next day, Trump tweeted that Sessions had taken “a VERY weak position” on what Trump characterized as Hillary Clinton’s “crimes” and on “leaks” from the intelligence community.
Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama and Vice President Al Gore, said the request “could also be a sign that Mueller is trying to understand Attorney General Sessions’ contacts with Russia, his candor in his security clearance forms and before Congress, and the facts requiring his recusal.”
‘Sessions and Rosenstein at the core of the obstruction inquiry’
Mueller has since at least June been investigating whether Trump tried to obstruct justice.
He has interviewed or is preparing to speak with some of Trump’s closest aides as part of that inquiry, including the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, and the former press secretary Sean Spicer. Mueller’s team is set to interview Don McGahn, the White House counsel, in the coming weeks.
According to the White House special counsel Ty Cobb, Trump decided he wanted Comey gone shortly after the FBI director testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3.
Comey reiterated during that public appearance that some of Trump’s associates were still under investigation, and he said it made him “mildly nauseous” to think that his handling of the investigation into Clinton’s use of private email while she was secretary of state “might have had some impact on the election.”
Reports have suggested that Trump was annoyed with Comey for implying that the election was somehow swayed by the director’s controversial decision to tell Congress that he was reexamining Clinton’s emails 11 days before the election.
Additionally, Comey did not allow the White House to review his testimony beforehand, which Trump and his aides considered “an act of insubordination,” according to Reuters. The Times echoed that report, saying Trump was broadly irked by his inability to gain assurances of loyalty from Comey.
As such, Trump wrote a letter with one of his top policy advisers, Stephen Miller, outlining why he thought Comey was unfit to lead the FBI and expressing frustration with the fact that Comey would not confirm publicly that Trump was not under investigation.
The letter was sent to the DOJ after some heavy editing by McGahn, according to The Times. Sessions and Rosenstein met with Trump shortly thereafter and wrote memos arguing that Comey should be fired.
“The sequence of events in which Sessions and Rosenstein met with Trump and the next day transmitted Rosenstein’s memo to the White House shortly before Trump fired Comey, allegedly for the reasons stated in Rosenstein’s memo, places Sessions and Rosenstein at the core of the obstruction inquiry,” Yeomans said.
“It will be important to know what communications occurred within DOJ and between DOJ and the WH before the White House meeting, immediately after the WH meeting, after transmission of the memo and before Comey’s firing, and after Comey’s firing.”
‘Letting Flynn go’
The day after Comey’s dismissal, Trump told two Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting that by firing Comey, whom he reportedly called a “nut job,” he had taken “great pressure” off himself, according to The Times. Days later, he told NBC’s Lester Holt that “the Russia thing” had been on his mind when he dismissed the FBI director.
Those comments – combined with a one-on-one meeting in February in which, Comey testified, Trump sought to have the FBI consider dropping its investigation into the former national security adviser Michael Flynn – have led lawmakers, legal experts, and now Mueller to examine whether Trump sought to obstruct justice, a criminal and impeachable offense.
Also of interest to Mueller, according to The Washington Post, are requests Trump made in late March to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and the chief of the National Security Agency, Mike Rogers. Trump reportedly asked Coats on March 22, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo still in the room, whether there was a way to get Comey to back off the FBI’s Flynn investigation.
Soon afterward, The Post said, Trump called Rogers and Coats to ask whether they could make public statements denying that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia during the campaign. Mueller interviewed Coats and Rogers about those interactions in mid-June.
Comey testified in June that in February, a day after Flynn resigned, Trump asked everyone to leave the room before he expressed “hope” that the FBI could see a way clear to “letting Flynn go.”
Comey said he found Trump’s emptying of the room before he made the request “significant” and took the comment as a “direction.”
Comey also testified that Trump asked him to publicly announce that Trump was not under investigation and that Trump asked for loyalty during a dinner in late January. Comey told Congress that Trump seemed to be implying that he would fire him if he did not pledge loyalty but that Comey ultimately promised the president “honesty” instead.
Obstruction of justice is broadly defined: It involves any conduct in which a person willfully interferes with the administration of justice. To charge someone with obstructing justice, however, prosecutors have to prove that “the defendant corruptly endeavored to influence, obstruct, or impede” an investigation, according to legal and national security experts at the website Lawfare. That element, they said, “is the hardest to prove, because it depends on showing an improper motive.”