Trump spoke to witnesses over Russia investigation: NYT

US President Donald Trump also asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview with the special counsel investigators had gone.
US President Donald Trump also asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview with the special counsel investigators had gone. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - The US special counsel in the Russian election meddling investigation has learnt of two conversations in which President Donald Trump had asked witnesses about matters discussed with investigators, the New York Times reported on Wednesday (March 7).

The newspaper, which cited three unidentified people familiar with the matter, said Trump told an aide that White House counsel Donald McGahn should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January that said McGahn told investigators the President had once asked him to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

McGahn did not issue a statement and he "later had to remind the President that he had indeed asked Mr McGahn to see that Mr Mueller was dismissed", the Times report said.

Trump also asked his former chief of staff Reince Priebus how his interview with the special counsel investigators had gone and whether they had been "nice".

The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the US President has ignored his lawyers' advice to avoid doing anything publicly or privately that could create the appearance of interfering with it.

The White House did not respond to several requests for comment. Priebus and McGahn declined to comment through their lawyer, William A. Burck. Legal experts said Trump's contact with the men most likely did not rise to the level of witness tampering.

But witnesses and lawyers who learnt about the conversations viewed them as potentially a problem and shared them with Mueller.

Mueller's investigation arose in part from the findings of US intelligence agencies that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US election and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump, who won a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Russia denies the allegations and Trump says there was no collusion between Moscow and his campaign.

Mueller has charged several Trump associates and more than a dozen Russians.

In investigating Russian election interference, Mueller is also examining whether the President tried to obstruct the inquiry.

James Comey, who was then the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Trump asked him for his loyalty and to end the investigation into his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

After firing Comey, the President said privately that the dismissal had relieved "great pressure" on him.

And Trump also told White House officials after Attorney-General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation that he needed someone running the Justice Department who would protect him.

The experts said the meetings with McGahn and Priebus would probably sharpen Mueller's focus on the President's interactions with other witnesses.

The special counsel questioned witnesses recently about their interactions with the President since the investigation began.

The experts also said the episodes could serve as evidence for Mueller in an obstruction case.