As the White House continues to grapple with the bombshell allegations outlined in a new book about the Trump presidency, a report that the president sought to control the early stages of the Justice Department’s Russia probe is likely to cause further headaches for the administration.
According to a New York Times story published Thursday evening, Trump was so determined to keep Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election that he enlisted White House counsel Don McGahn to help him. Sessions recused himself anyway, angering the president for months.
While Trump has publicly said he disagreed with Sessions’ decision — in July, for example, Trump said he wouldn’t have selected Sessions to run the Justice Department if he’d known he would remove himself from overseeing the probe — the Times report suggests Trump personally attempted to influence the attorney general’s choice. An Associated Press source also confirmed the story.
“This is potentially more evidence that the president committed obstruction of justice,” legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN following the Times report.
Politico reported last year that Trump asked Sessions to submit his resignation after ex-FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed to oversee an independent Russia investigation. According to The New York Times, Trump rejected the letter and sent it back to Sessions with a note saying “Not accepted.” (HuffPost sought a copy of the letter via a Freedom of Information Act request last year, but the Department of Justice wouldn’t confirm or deny that the letter exists, citing Sessions’ right to privacy. )
The Times also details the days leading up to Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, reporting that the president grew increasingly frustrated with Comey in early May ― particularly after Comey testified on Capitol Hill and wouldn’t say whether the president was personally under investigation in the Russia probe ― and began to talk about possibly firing him.
This concerned a White House lawyer who believed that firing Comey could prompt an investigation into whether the president was attempting to obstruct justice, according the Times. The lawyer then reportedly misled Trump about his power to remove Comey, intentionally making it appear that he didn’t know whether the president had authority to fire the FBI director. (There is, however, clear legal precedent that he can.)
The Times also alleges a Sessions aide asked a congressional staffer for damaging information on Comey several days before Comey was fired, and that a letter Trump intended to send to Comey about his firing cited the Russia investigation in its first sentence and called the probe “fabricated and politically motivated.”
The White House didn’t immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment on the Times’ story.
It’s already been a challenging week for the White House, beginning with the president’s series of controversial tweets ― including one in which Trump taunted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about his “much bigger” nuclear button.
On Wednesday, several news outlets reported on excerpts from journalist Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which contains detailed, often explosive claims about the chaos within the administration.
Wolff quotes former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon describing Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russian operatives at Trump Tower as “treasonous.” Bannon told Wolff there was “zero” chance the president’s son didn’t introduce the Russians to his father after the meeting.
The president responded with a fiery statement distancing himself from the one-time chief executive of his 2016 campaign.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency,” Trump said Wednesday. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spent most of her time with reporters on Wednesday and Thursday fielding questions about the book. She dismissed Wolff’s work as “trash,” and said the book is filled with “mistake after mistake after mistake.”
The White House even sought to block the book from publication, sending a cease-and-desist letter to Wolff and his publisher.
The publisher then decided to release the book several days early.