Trump’s team ‘investigates special counsel’s investigators’

Efforts to find conflicts of interest in Robert Mueller’s team a sign of looming showdown

 Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and special counsel who is leading the Russia investigation. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and special counsel who is leading the Russia investigation. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times


President Donald Trump’s lawyers and aides are scouring the professional and political backgrounds of investigators hired by special counsel Robert Mueller, looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation – or even build a case to fire Mr Mueller or get some members of his team recused, according to three people with knowledge of the research effort.

The search for potential conflicts is wide-ranging. It includes scrutinising donations to Democratic candidates, investigators’ past clients and Mr Mueller’s relationship with James Comey, whose firing as FBI director is part of the special counsel’s investigation.

The effort to investigate the investigators is another sign of a looming showdown between Mr Trump and Mr Mueller, who has assembled a team of high-powered prosecutors and agents to examine whether any of Trump’s advisers aided Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.

Some of the investigators have vast experience prosecuting financial malfeasance, and the prospect that Mr Mueller’s inquiry could evolve into an expansive examination of Mr Trump’s financial history has stoked fears among the president’s aides. Both Mr Trump and his aides have said publicly they are watching closely to ensure Mr Mueller’s investigation remains narrowly focused on last year’s election.

During an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Mr Trump said he was aware that members of Mr Mueller’s team had potential conflicts of interest and would make the information available “at some point”.

Mr Trump also said Mr Mueller would be going outside his mandate if he begins investigating matters unrelated to Russia, like the president’s personal finances. Mr Trump repeatedly declined to say what he might do if Mr Mueller appeared to exceed that mandate. But his comments represented a clear message to Mr Mueller.

“The president’s making clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said during a news briefing on Thursday. Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the special counsel, declined to comment.

Political donations

For weeks, Republicans have publicly identified what they see as potential conflicts among Mr Mueller’s team of more than a dozen investigators. In particular, they have cited thousands of dollars of political donations to Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, made by Andrew Weissmann, a former senior justice department official who has expertise in fraud and other financial crimes.

News reports have revealed similar donations by other members of Mr Mueller’s team, which Trump’s allies have cited as evidence of political bias. Another lawyer Mr Mueller has hired, Jeannie Rhee, represented the Clinton Foundation.

To seek a recusal, Mr Trump’s lawyers can argue their case to Mr Mueller or his boss, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. The justice department has explicit rules about what constitutes a conflict of interest. Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have “a personal or political relationship” with the subject of the case. Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a “political relationship”.

Fear of Mueller

The examination of Mr Mueller’s investigators reflects deep concerns among the president’s aides that Mr Mueller will mount a wide-ranging investigation in the mould of the inquiry conducted by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the 1990s. Mr Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton began by reviewing an Arkansas land deal and concluded several years later with the president’s impeachment over a lie about a sexual affair.

By building files on Mr Mueller’s team, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of the Clinton White House, which openly challenged Mr Starr and criticised what Mr Clinton’s aides saw as a political witch hunt.

Mr Trump’s advisers are split on how far to go in challenging the independence of Mr Mueller, a retired FBI director and one of the most respected figures in law enforcement. Some advisers have warned that dismissing Mr Mueller would create a legal and political mess.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump has kept up the attacks on him. In his interview with the New York Times, which caught members of his legal team by surprise, he focused on the fact that Mr Mueller had interviewed to replace Mr Comey as the FBI director just a day before Mr Mueller was appointed special prosecutor, saying that the interview could create a conflict.

“He was sitting in that chair,” Mr Trump said during the Oval Office interview. “He was up here, and he wanted the job.” Mr Trump did not explain how the interview created a conflict of interest.

Comey firing

In addition to investigating possible collusion between Russia and Mr Trump’s advisers, the special counsel is examining whether the president obstructed justice by firing Mr Comey. Some of Mr Trump’s supporters have portrayed Mr Mueller and Mr Comey as close friends. While they worked closely together in the justice department under President George W Bush and are known to respect each other, associates of both men say the two are not particularly close.

Mr Mueller’s team has begun examining financial records, and has requested documents from the IRS related to Mr Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, according to a senior US official. The records are from a criminal tax investigation that had been opened long before Mr Trump’s campaign began. Mr Manafort was never charged in that case.

Federal investigators have also contacted Deutsche Bank about Mr Trump’s accounts, and the bank is expecting to provide information to Mr Mueller. A lawyer for Mr Trump, Jay Sekulow, declined to address the potential conflicts he and the other lawyers for Mr Trump have uncovered about Mr Mueller’s team. He said, however, that “any good lawyer would raise, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate venue, conflict-of-interest issues”.

New York Times