- By Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman The New York Times
The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Donald Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters.
In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked McGahn to see that Mueller was dismissed, the people said.
In the other episode, Trump asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview had gone with the special counsel’s investigators and whether they had been “nice,” according to two people familiar with the discussion.
The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the 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 learned about the conversations viewed them as potentially a problem and shared them with Mueller.
In investigating Russian election interference, Mueller is also examining whether the president tried to obstruct the inquiry. James Comey, who was then the FBI director, 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 has 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.
“It makes it look like you’re cooking a story, and prosecutors are always looking out for it,” said Julie R. O’Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University and expert on white-collar criminal investigations.
She added, “It can get at the issue of consciousness of guilt in an obstruction case because if you didn’t do anything wrong, why are you doing that?”
Central figures in investigations are almost always advised by their own lawyers to keep from speaking with witnesses and prosecutors to prevent accusations of witness tampering. The president has not been questioned by Mueller; Trump’s lawyers are negotiating terms of a possible interview. Learning even basic details about what other witnesses told investigators could help the president shape his own answers.
Trump’s interactions with McGahn unfolded in the days after the Jan. 25 Times article, which said that McGahn threatened to quit in June after the president asked him to fire the special counsel. After the article was published, the White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, told McGahn that the president wanted him to release a statement saying that the story was not true, the people said.
Porter, who resigned last month amid a domestic abuse scandal, told McGahn the president had suggested he might “get rid of” McGahn if he chose not to challenge the article, the people briefed on the conversation said.
McGahn did not publicly deny the article, and the president later confronted him in the Oval Office in front of the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, according to the people.
The president said he had never ordered McGahn to fire the special counsel. McGahn replied that the president was wrong and that he had in fact asked McGahn in June to call the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to tell him that the special counsel had a series of conflicts that disqualified him from overseeing the investigation and that he had to be dismissed. The president told McGahn that he did not remember the discussion that way.
Trump moved on, pointing out that McGahn had never told him that he was going to resign over the order to fire the special counsel. McGahn acknowledged that that was true but said that he had told senior White House officials at the time that he was going to quit.
It is not clear how the confrontation was resolved. McGahn has stayed on as White House counsel, one of the few senior administration officials who has been with the president since the campaign.
Priebus met with the president in the West Wing in December, according to the people with knowledge of their encounter. Allies of Priebus, who left the White House in July, have cautioned him to keep his distance. But Priebus, who is seeking to build a law practice as a Washington power broker who can open doors for clients, has maintained contact and occasionally visited the White House to see Trump and his own replacement, Kelly.
Trump brought up Priebus’ October interview with the special counsel’s office, the people said, and Priebus replied that the investigators were courteous and professional. He shared no specifics and did not say what he had told investigators, and the conversation moved on after a few minutes, those briefed on it said. Kelly was present for that conversation as well, and it was not clear whether he tried to stop the discussion.
It is not illegal for the subject of an investigation to learn what witnesses have told investigators. But that is usually done through lawyers for the people involved because their communications are often shielded from prosecutors because of attorney-client privilege. In organized crime and complex white-collar investigations, prosecutors often ask witnesses whether they have spoken to the person under investigation to determine whether they are coordinating their stories.
Priebus has had a long and complicated relationship with the president. He was one of the few who publicly defended Trump after the Times article about his attempt to fire Mueller, which cited the president’s view that Mueller had too many conflicts to be the special counsel.
“He expresses concerns with the conflicts, but I never heard the idea or the concept that this person needed to be fired,” Priebus said last month in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I never felt it was relayed to me that way, either. And I would know the difference between a level 10 situation as reported in that story and what was reality. And it just — to me, it wasn’t reality.”