U.S. President Donald Trump has called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop an investigation into ties between Russia and his 2016 election campaign "right now," in a tweet that set off a firestorm of criticism in Washington.
Trump's demand on August 1 that Sessions end Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation drew a rebuke from fellow Republicans in Congress, who said the probe must go on, while Democrats charged it was Trump's latest attempt to obstruct justice -- a possible crime that Mueller is reportedly investigating.
In a series of early morning tweets, Trump called Mueller's investigation into whether there was collusion between Russia and his campaign a "TOTAL HOAX" and said, "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."
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff was one of many who seized on the tweet, saying Trump "just called on his Attorney General to put an end to an investigation in which the president, his family, and campaign may be implicated."
He called the tweet "an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight."
When pressed whether Trump was ordering Sessions to fire Mueller, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that the tweet was "not an order" and the president was not directing his attorney general to do anything.
"It's the president's opinion," she said, adding that Trump had been frustrated that the investigation has continued this year despite hopes among Trump's attorneys that it would end early in 2018.
"The president's not obstructing, he's fighting back," Sanders said.
Media have reported, however, that Mueller, who was appointed by the Justice Department a year ago, has been investigating whether Trump's frequent tweets attacking his investigation and rebuking Sessions and other Justice Department officials for allowing it to continue provide evidence that he is attempting to obstruct justice.
Trump in May tweeted that he might take action on his own against the probe if the Justice Department didn't intervene. "At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!" he said at the time.
"There is now highly credible evidence that the president of the United States is committing obstruction of justice in real time, right before our eyes," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said on August 1 after Trump's latest tweets.
Sessions has faced frequent criticism from Trump since he recused himself from the Mueller investigation last year, citing his role as an adviser to Trump's election campaign.
As a result of Sessions' recusal, he no longer has authority to stop the investigation. He ceded that power to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has also been the target of Trump attacks and an impeachment resolution in Congress.
But Mueller, a Republican and former FBI director, has broad support in Congress, where Republicans control both chambers.
Several Republican senators on August 1 rejected Trump's call to end Mueller's probe.
"They ought to let them conclude their work. What they’re doing is something that is important and we support and I don’t think any effort to truncate that or somehow shut it down early is in the public's best interest," said Senator John Thune, the Senate's No. 3 Republican.
Senator Orrin Hatch said he did not think Sessions had the power to end the probe and it would be unwise to do so.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said after Trump's tweet, "It's clear to me he's very worried about it and he wants to prevent it any way he can."
In April, the committee approved legislation to protect Mueller from firing, but Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said there was no need to advance the bill because he did not believe Trump would fire Mueller.
Some legal analysts said Trump's latest tweet, on its own, is not proof enough to bring an obstruction-of-justice charge, but they said it could be used to establish a pattern of conduct revealing 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," Paul Rosenzweig, a former U.S. prosecutor who was part of a team that investigated former President Bill Clinton, told Reuters.