WASHINGTON • White House officials said they did not know whether US President Donald Trump would seek to block former FBI director James Comey from testifying to Congress this week, a move that could spark a political backlash.
"I have not spoken to counsel yet. I don't know how they're going to respond," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters.
However, The New York Times, quoting two unnamed senior administration officials, reported that the President did not plan to invoke executive privilege to try to prevent Mr Comey from providing potentially damaging testimony to Congress.
Mr Comey was leading a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe into alleged Russian meddling in last year's United States presidential election and possible collusion by Mr Trump's campaign when the President fired him last month.
Critics have charged that Mr Trump was seeking to hinder the FBI's investigation by dismissing Mr Comey.
The former FBI chief is due to testify on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its own Russia-related investigation, and his remarks could cause problems for the Republican President.
Mr Comey is widely expected to be asked about conversations in which the President reportedly pressured him to drop an investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose ties to Russia are under scrutiny.
Critics have said that such pressure could potentially amount to obstruction of justice. Presidents can assert executive privilege to prevent government employees from sharing information.
However, legal experts say it is not clear whether certain conversations between Mr Trump and Mr Comey that the President has talked about publicly would be covered, and any effort to block Mr Comey, who is now a private citizen, from testifying could be challenged in court.
Democratic lawmakers sent White House counsel Donald McGahn a letter warning that invoking executive privilege "would be seen as an effort to obstruct the truth from both Congress and the American people".
In an interview with ABC News, White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared to indicate the President would allow Mr Comey to testify.
"We'll be watching with the rest of the world when director Comey testifies," she said. But asked directly whether Mr Trump would invoke executive privilege on his testimony, she added: "The President will make that decision."
The Justice Department appointed a special counsel last month to take the lead on the Russia investigation. US intelligence agencies have concluded the Russian government sought to influence the US election in Mr Trump's favour, a charge Russia has denied.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, said last Thursday some Russians may have acted on their own.
Mr Trump, who has raised doubts about the US agencies' findings and denounced the continuing Russia probes, has denied any collusion.
Meanwhile, Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia, is expanding his probe to assume control of a grand jury investigation into Mr Flynn, three sources told Reuters.
The move means Mr Mueller's politically-charged inquiry will now look into Mr Flynn's paid work as a lobbyist for a Turkish businessman last year, in addition to contacts between Russian officials and Mr Flynn and other Trump associates during and after the Nov 8 presidential election.