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Trump, Mueller may spar as Russia probe picks steam after McCabe sacking

Any move to fire Mueller is expected to ignite a political firestorm in Washington. Democrats have warned of a constitutional crisis


Andrew McCabe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Andrew McCabe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

President and his lawyer fired what may be the first shots in a showdown with Special Counsel over the future of his investigation into Russian election meddling and Trump’s campaign.

The firing of Andrew McCabe, until recently the FBI’s deputy director, prompted Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, to call Saturday for Mueller to shut down his collusion probe. Trump, meanwhile, unleashed a pair of tweets attacking the Federal Bureau of Investigation and James Comey, the director he fired in May.

The comments were the latest sign that Trump has lost patience with the months-long investigation that’s cast a dark shadow over his presidency.

Trump’s lawyers, who’ve been negotiating terms for Mueller to interview the president, had assured their client for most of last year that the investigation would wrap up by the end of 2017, said a person familiar with the matter. Trump was talked out of firing Mueller back in June, but there are strong signals that the special counsel and his team of 17 prosecutors have at least several months more work ahead of them.

“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Trump said Saturday on Twitter. “It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!”

Firestorm Possible

Any move to fire Mueller is expected to ignite a political firestorm in Washington. Democrats have warned of a constitutional crisis, and even most Senate Republicans have cautioned Trump against doing anything to curtail the special counsel’s investigation.

Republicans were noticeably silent, though, in the immediate aftermath of the new calls from Trump and his lawyers to end the probe. It’s unclear whether they would take steps to rein the president in if he took drastic action.

McCabe’s firing also adds fresh fuel to Mueller’s probe. Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department attorney now serving as one of McCabe’s lawyers, said that the veteran agent was fired after the disclosure that he’s a cooperating witness against Trump. McCabe documented his interactions with Trump in a series of memos, according to a person familiar with the matter, and those memos could play into Mueller’s investigation. The memos have been provided to the special counsel’s office, according to AP.

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 -- starting with the lengthy statement Friday night where he noted that he could “corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the president.”

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 investigation firm Berkeley Research Group LLC. “If he was holding anything back out of loyalty to the 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.”

Comey, meanwhile, is about to embark on a high-profile publicity tour and series of television interviews to promote his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership,” which is being released on April 17. “Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon,” Comey said Saturday in a tweet. “And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.”

‘No Collusion’

The White House on Saturday did nothing to clear up the confusion about Trump’s stance toward Mueller’s probe.

“I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier,” Dowd said in an emailed statement early in the day.

Dowd quickly clarified that he was speaking for himself, not for the president. Even so, Trump cheered the firing of McCabe, calling the corrupt, and claiming the House Intelligence Committee found “there was no collusion between and the Trump campaign.” The full committee released no such finding, although Republicans on the panel said they found no evidence of collusion.

Sekulow’s Show

The White House didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. White House lawyers have said in the past they plan to cooperate fully with Mueller’s probe, but Trump’s other personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has used his daily radio show to chip away at Mueller’s investigation for months.

The show, which Sekulow has broadcast for more than two decades to an audience of more than 1.5 million daily listeners, has become a key venue for challenging the basis for Mueller’s investigation. Sekulow has regularly attacked the credibility of McCabe and other officials looking into Russian election meddling, as well as the use of a surveillance warrant against a Trump campaign adviser.

Democrats said they were alarmed by the latest attacks on the investigation.

“Any attempt by the president to obstruct or remove the special counsel would create a constitutional crisis and represent an attack on the core American principle that nobody, including the president of the United States, is above the law,” warned Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

The president can’t fire Mueller directly, since he answers to the Justice Department official who appointed him, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Usually a special counsel would report to the attorney general, but Sessions recused himself from the inquiry because he advised and supported Trump’s 2016 campaign. But Trump still has options.

A series of potentially pivotal events are on the horizon for the investigation. Beyond a possible interview of the president, Mueller still hasn’t had wide-ranging interviews with members of Trump’s family who were witnesses to some of the issues he’s investigating.

While Mueller is believed to be nearing the end of his investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice, he may hold off on releasing any conclusion until other parts of his probe are settled, current and former officials said.

Mueller also appears to be looking into Trump’s business, including asking witnesses about a proposed Trump Tower Moscow. The New York Times reported Mueller issued a subpoena for documents to the Trump Organization several weeks ago. Dowd had previously said it would be outside Mueller’s mandate to probe into Trump’s business dealings. He declined to comment on the subpoena.

Obstruction Case

Given McCabe’s role as an important witness with details about the firing of Comey, his termination could add to -- but not derail -- an obstruction of justice case, said William Yeomans, a 26-year Justice Department veteran who’s served as an acting assistant attorney general.

“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 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 fired McCabe ahead of his planned retirement on Sunday at age 50, a move that Trump celebrated on Twitter as a “a great day for Democracy.” 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.

McCabe, who joined the in 1996, became a Republican target partly because he helped oversee the investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s email practices in 2016, even though his wife had accepted donations from Democratic political organizations during a losing campaign for the Virginia state Senate the previous year.

“How many hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to wife’s campaign by Crooked H friend, Terry M, who was also under investigation?” Trump said in an earlier tweet. Twitter. “How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!”

First Published: Sun, March 18 2018. 11:13 IST