, Washington, United States, Jun 15 – The special counsel overseeing the probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the US election is also looking at whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct justice, media reports say, citing unnamed officials.
In what appears to be a pivotal shift in the investigation that has riveted Americans like no other in decades, the Washington Post said senior intelligence officials have agreed to be interviewed by investigators working for special counsel Robert Mueller.
In a report published on Wednesday, the paper quoted five people briefed on the requests, saying those who agreed to be interviewed include national intelligence director Daniel Coats, Admiral Mike Rogers who heads the National Security Agency (NSA), and his recently departed deputy, Richard Ledgett.
The New York Times corroborated the report, citing a person briefed on the investigation.
It also quoted an intelligence official who said Mueller’s office had asked the NSA for documents related to the agency’s interactions with the administration as part of the investigation into Russian meddling into last year’s presidential election, and whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Moscow.
Mueller also has the authority to investigate whether Trump tried to obstruct justice amid mounting evidence that he pressured the FBI to drop an investigation into his former national security advisor, Mike Flynn.
Trump was forced to fire Flynn in February after he misled the White House about his contacts with Russian officials last year as a member of Trump’s transition team.
The president vehemently denies any collusion between himself or any of his associates and Russia.
– Pressure on Comey –
The shift toward investigating the US president began days after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director on May 9, the Post said.
Comey, who had been overseeing the bureau’s Russia investigation, says he had previously assured Trump he was not personally under investigation.
Recent reports have said Trump also requested help from Coats and Rogers to pressure Comey to end the investigation into Flynn’s activities.
Quoting officials, the Post said one event of interest to Mueller — a widely-respected former head of the FBI — is an exchange on March 22, when Coats told associates Trump had asked him to intervene with Comey to get him to back off from focusing on Flynn.
A few days later, Trump spoke separately with Coats and Rogers and asked them to issue public statements to the effect that there was no evidence of coordination between his campaign and Russia.
Both men refused the president’s request, the Post said.
Coats and Rogers refused to answer questions about the matter during a Senate committee hearing last week.
The interviews could come as early as this week, the Post said.
– ‘Outrageous, inexcusable’ –
The newspaper’s story provoked a furious reaction from Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz and the Republican National Committee.
Kasowitz issued a statement saying the FBI was behind the Post story and called the leak “outrageous, inexcusable and illegal.”
He did not deny the story, however.
Mueller briefed senators on his work on Wednesday.
“I’m going to acknowledge we had a meeting with the special counsel Mueller, but I’m not going to get into the contents,” Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters later.
Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called the accusation in the Post unfounded and said it “changes nothing.”
“There’s still no evidence of obstruction, and current and former leaders in the intelligence community have repeatedly said there’s been no effort to impede the investigation in any way,” she said in a statement.
“The continued illegal leaks are the only crime here.”
Even if Mueller’s probe finds evidence Trump tried to obstruct justice, the Justice Department — which oversees the FBI and the special counsel investigation — is highly unlikely to indict a sitting president.
However, any findings of criminal activity would put pressure on the Republican-controlled Congress to use them as the basis for launching impeachment proceedings against Trump.