WASHINGTON • US 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 to discredit the investigation - or build a case to fire Mr Mueller or get some of his team members recused, said 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 ties with Mr James Comey, whose firing as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director is part of Mr Mueller'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 Mr 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 his aides. Mr Trump and his aides have said they are watching closely to ensure Mr Mueller's investigation remains narrowly focused on last year's election.
In an interview with The New York Times (NYT) on Wednesday, Mr Trump said he knew members of Mr Mueller's team had potential conflicts of interest and would make the information known "at some point". He also said Mr Mueller would be going outside his mandate if he looks into 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 is making clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation," White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a news briefing on Thursday.
Mr Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the special counsel, declined to comment.
For weeks, Republicans have publicly identified what they see as potential conflicts among Mr Mueller's team of over a dozen investigators. In particular, they have cited thousands of dollars of political donations to Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, made by Mr Andrew Weissmann, a former senior Justice Department official.
To seek a recusal, Mr Trump's lawyers can make a case to Mr Mueller or his boss, Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein. The Justice Department has explicit rules about what is 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 among the things that would create a "political relationship".
The examination of Mr Mueller's investigators reflects Trump aides' fears that Mr Mueller will mount a wide-ranging probe in the mould of the inquiry by independent counsel Kenneth Starr in the 1990s. The investigation into then President Bill Clinton began by reviewing an Arkansas land deal and ended years later with Mr Clinton'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.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump is shaking up his legal team in the Russia investigation. Attorney John Dowd said he will be the President's lead lawyer on the issue, while Mr Marc Kasowitz will have a scaled-back role.