WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has called on Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to end the special counsel's inquiry into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, issuing an unambiguous directive on Twitter to shut down a probe that even now is scrutinising his tweets for evidence of obstruction.
The White House and Mr Trump's lawyers moved quickly on Wednesday to play down the President's statement, dismissing it as merely a case of venting by a president who has grown increasingly angry with an investigation he sees as illegitimate and saying it was not a direct order.
But in saying that Mr Sessions, the nation's top law-enforcement official, should take specific action to terminate the investigation, the tweet crossed a line that Mr Trump has never explicitly crossed - until now. It immediately raised more questions over whether Mr Trump was attempting to obstruct justice, already an issue being examined extensively by Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation.
The trial of Mr Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on charges arising from Mr Mueller's inquiry, which began this week, has made the stakes of the Mueller investigation increasingly clear.
Even as Mr Trump was calling for an end to the investigation into whether his campaign had colluded with Moscow, it was revealed that he had pushed his lawyers to make another attempt to reach an agreement to sit for an interview, an objective he has long sought because he believes he can convince Mr Mueller of his version of events.
But the morning tweet signified a new chapter in the public feud between the President and Mr Sessions, the product of Mr Trump's rage and sense of betrayal at his Attorney-General for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry. That has made it impossible for the President to control an investigation that he sees as undercutting his legitimacy.
This is a terrible situation and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch-hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.
U.S. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, in a tweet on Wednesday.
"This is a terrible situation and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch-hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further," Mr Trump wrote in a tweet. "Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!"
Mr Trump's lawyers, Mr Jay Sekulow and Mr Rudy Giuliani, insisted afterwards that the President still had not given such an order and he did not intend to. "It's not a call to action," Mr Giuliani said, adding it was a sentiment that Mr Trump and his lawyers had previously expressed publicly. The lawyers said Mr Trump wanted the legal process to play out. "He's expressing his opinion, but he's not talking of his special powers he has" as President, Mr Giuliani said.
Even taken at face value, Mr Sessions does not have the power to stop the inquiry after recusing himself from it in March last year. The Mueller investigation has instead been overseen by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein.
Mr Mueller, appointed by Mr Rosenstein last year to oversee the Russia investigation, is already looking into some of the President's previous Twitter posts and public statements to determine whether they reflect an intent and pattern of conduct meant to obstruct the inquiry.
Mr Giuliani dismissed the obstruction-of-justice concerns, calling them a "bizarre and novel theory of obstruction by tweet".
Several US lawmakers said shutting down the investigation early would be a mistake. "They ought to let them conclude their work," said Republican Senator John Thune.
Some legal analysts said Wednesday's tweet alone was not enough to bring an obstruction-of-justice charge, but it could be used to establish a pattern of conduct revealing Mr Trump's intentions. "It is a piece of evidence. It is part and parcel with the other 94 things the man has done that show obstruction of justice," said former prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig.
US intelligence agencies concluded last year that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign to try to tip the vote in the then Republican candidate's favour. Moscow has denied such interference, and Mr Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign or any obstruction of justice.
The former Trump campaign chairman this week became the first person to go to trial after being ensnared in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. While the trial is not likely to focus on his campaign role, it will shed light on whether he hid a significant portion of the earnings he made doing consulting work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.
Appointed last year to his current post, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director is probing whether the Trump campaign aided or abetted an attempt by Russia to sway the 2016 election. The probe has charged 32 people, including 26 Russians, and others in Mr Trump's campaign orbit, although none of the charges against Manafort are related to the alleged collusion.
The nation's top law-enforcement official recused himself early last year from all matters related to the 2016 election probe, citing his role as a senior adviser to Mr Trump's presidential campaign.
He appointed Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein to oversee the investigation.
His recusal has led to a public feud between him and the President, with Mr Trump saying he never would have made Mr Sessions his Attorney-General if he had known Mr Sessions would recuse himself.