WASHINGTON (AFP) - Donald Trump ripped into the Russia collusion probe on Wednesday (Nov 7), calling it a "disgusting Witch Hunt" as the end of a two-month election hiatus freed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to resume issuing indictments and pressing for the president himself to answer questions.
The end of a Justice Department quiet period for the probe was expected to open the door for Trump's nemesis to resume filing charges and issuing subpoenas, with the president widely believed under investigation for possible obstruction of justice.
That could lead to a constitutional showdown over presidential powers or even an impeachment fight in the House of Representatives, newly under the control of hostile Democrats after Tuesday's midterm elections.
But Trump could also try to kill or suppress the probe with a shakeup at the top levels of the Justice Department, pressing his view that Mueller leads a team staffed by Democrats operating under an illegal mandate.
He cited election exit polls which showed more voters disapprove of the Mueller investigation than approve.
"You mean they are finally beginning to understand what a disgusting Witch Hunt, led by 17 Angry Democrats, is all about!" Trump tweeted on Wednesday (Nov 7).
NEW INDICTMENTS COMING?
The 18-month-old probe is believed to be preparing fresh indictments against people involved in Trump's 2016 election campaign, possibly including his son Donald Trump Jr. and a former campaign consultant Roger Stone.
The special counsel also wants Trump himself to answer questions on allegations that he may have criminally obstructed the probe, a request the White House has been fighting since early this year.
The president's attorney Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Post in August that, if Trump is subpoenaed to testify, they are ready to "argue it before the Supreme Court."
Quieted ahead of the election under Justice Department practice, Mueller's team hasn't been idle: they have been interviewing witnesses, including former Trump aides who recently agreed to provide evidence - one-time campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, Trump's right-hand man at the Trump Organisation.
Both could provide damning inside information that might add to the scalps Mueller has already taken.
In 18 months since he was named, 34 people and three companies have been charged by Mueller's team or in spinoff cases. Eight guilty pleas have resulted so far, and one jury trial conviction.
Crucially, Mueller has, by offering reduced charges, gained cooperation from people who once worked close to Trump: Manafort, Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates.
Mueller's team keeps an almost impermeable seal on its operations, but it is widely believed to be examining these issues:
* A June 9, 2016 meeting at the president's Manhattan redoubt Trump Tower that campaign officials, including Don Jr and the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, held with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Trump election rival Hillary Clinton;
* Contacts the Trump campaign, and particularly Stone, may have had with WikiLeaks, which published damaging documents stolen from Clinton's campaign by Russian hackers;
* Whether Trump campaign officials lied about certain events, including the Trump Tower meeting, to investigators;
* Misuse of campaign funds;
* Trump's financial and business ties to Russians.
'ILLEGAL WITCH HUNT'
The biggest question, though, is whether Trump obstructed justice through acts including firing former FBI chief James Comey.
If the Mueller team finds he did, it could lead to impeachment charges being considered by a hostile Democratic majority in the House.
That could politically immobilise the president, even if the Senate - in a tighter Republican grip following Tuesday's election - protects the president from removal.
Trump's strategy has been to try to delegitimise the Mueller probe, which he has repeatedly labelled an "illegal witch hunt." In Democrat hands, however, the House investigative apparatus will no longer support that claim.
Trump has also maintained a threat to fire or hamstring Mueller by removing his protectors, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff - who is poised to become the most powerful member of the House Intelligence Committee in the wake of the midterms - told MSNBC last month Trump may take a subtler path.
"The president may conclude... that rather than facing the blowback that would be occasioned by getting rid of Bob Mueller, he will get rid of Jeff Sessions," he said, "and replace him with some lackey... who will simply do his bidding and privately kneecap Bob Mueller rather than overtly fire him."