WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump's personal lawyer said on Sunday (June 18) that Trump is not under investigation in the probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential race, a statement that appeared to contradict a comment Trump himself made on Twitter last week.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who is part of a team hired by Trump to deal with allegations of collusion by his campaign with Moscow, made the rounds on Sunday talk shows to cast doubt on media reports citing unnamed sources - and to add nuance to a straightforward claim Trump made on Friday that he was under investigation.
"The fact of the matter is the president has not been and is not under investigation," Sekulow said on CBS' Face the Nation - in one of four interviews he gave on Sunday - adding that the president has not received any notification that he is being investigated.
On Friday, Trump had tweeted: "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt."
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Trump, who has denied any collusion between his campaign and Russia, has frequently lashed out about the allegations, which have overshadowed his administration's efforts to overhaul the healthcare system, cut taxes and boost jobs.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel named by the Justice Department to probe the Russia matter, is investigating whether anyone associated with Trump or his campaign had any illegal dealings with Russian officials or others with ties to the Kremlin. Russian officials have denied meddling in the US election.
A US official who is familiar with the rough outlines of the probe and who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters on Thursday that Mueller was also examining whether Trump or others tried to interfere with the investigation.
Sekulow said that Trump, in his tweet, was reacting to a story in the Washington Post that was the first to report Mueller was examining whether Trump had tried to obstruct the probe by firing FBI director James Comey in May.
On Fox News Sunday, Sekulow said that he was certain the president was not under investigation because he had received no notification or other indication that he was.
Pressed on the issue by host Chris Wallace, Sekulow acknowledged that he could not be certain. "I cannot read the mind of the special prosecutor," Sekulow said. "No one has notified us that he is" under investigation, Sekulow said.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Mueller team, declined to comment.
Barak Cohen, a former Justice Department lawyer and now a defence attorney specialising in white-collar crime and investigations, said there was no requirement that the special counsel notify Trump he was under investigation, so the lack of such notice meant nothing.
He said, however, that Sekulow's comments could mean the White House was taking the position that no investigation exists until Mueller's team officially confirms it, disregarding any media reports based on anonymous sourcing.
Cohen said the first official communication that a target is under investigation typically comes when prosecutors begin requesting documents and other evidence. At that time, defence lawyers often will ask for their client's status.
Prosecutors will often answer then to avoid misleading the target. But they may also not answer if they are trying to build a case and develop further evidence. "No answer is probably the most troubling answer in criminal defence," said Cohen.
Separately, a former White House lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was nothing stopping Trump or his lawyers from asking Mueller whether Trump was under investigation.
Mueller would be allowed, though not required, to answer that question, unless it involved material before a grand jury, the former White House lawyer said.
The lawyer also said it was unlikely that any obstruction probe would not examine Trump. "It's inconceivable he's not under investigation in the obstruction investigation," the lawyer said. "It's all about him."
Trump's statements on Twitter are a sign of his frustration with the Russia allegations, said former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, on ABC's "This Week." "Trump has a compulsion to counterattack and is very pugnacious. I don't think it serves him well. I don't think that tweet helped him," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said he had lost confidence in Mueller because he is a friend of Comey, and said too many members of Mueller's investigative team have ties to Democrats.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, defended Mueller and his team, noting that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have praised his appointment.
Schiff said Trump, his legal team and his supporters were trying to discredit the special counsel and his investigation. "They want to lay the foundation to discredit whatever Bob Mueller comes up with. They are essentially engaging in a scorched earth litigation strategy that is beginning with trying to discredit the prosecutor," Schiff said on ABC.
Multiple committees in the Senate and House of Representatives are investigating various aspects of Russian election meddling.
The Senate intelligence committee is in the early stages of its probe and is looking at whether anyone involved in the campaign shared information with the Russians, said Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
"I'd say we're 20 per cent into it, just to throw a number at it," King said on NBC's Meet the Press." Lawmakers from both parties are worried that Russian meddling in US elections could continue, King said.
"The real problem here is the Russians aren't going away. This isn't a one-off deal," he said.