U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller is examining whether President Donald Trump attempted to obstruct justice by trying to quash part of an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and then firing the FBI director, The Washington Post reported on June 14.
The inquiry into possible obstruction of justice, which is a criminal offense in the United States, started days after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, The Washington Post said, citing anonymous officials, and marks a major turning point in an investigation that began nearly a year ago as a probe of signs that Russia was attempting to influence the elections through repeated leaks of Democratic e-mails.
Comey testified last week that he believes he was fired because Trump was unhappy with the Russia investigation, which Trump has called a "witch hunt."
“It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said. “I was fired, in some way, to change -- or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
Also under examination, The Post said, is Trump's suggestion to Comey in February that he drop an investigation into Russia's ties with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Trump later repeated that request to other White House officials involved with the investigation.
Comey testified that he thought Trump's request to "let go" of the Flynn probe was "very disturbing...very concerning" and that he expects Mueller will closely examine whether it amounted to an obstruction of justice "offense."
Trump's legal team quickly denounced The Post report.
"The FBI leak of information regarding the president is outrageous, inexcusable, and illegal," a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, Mark Corallo, said.
Earlier this week, a month after Trump fired Comey, a close associate of Trump said the president was considering firing Mueller, as well, though he was installed by the Justice Department to conduct the Russia investigation only a few weeks ago.
After the comment by Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy in an interview with PBS, the White House denied that Trump has any plans to fire Mueller, but said he has the "right" to do so.
While a sitting president is unlikely to face criminal prosecution, obstruction of justice could form the basis for his impeachment in Congress.
Some Democrats in Congress have started to press for impeachment of Trump, citing obstruction of justice, but any move to start an impeachment process faces steep hurdles as it would require approval by the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by Trump's fellow Republicans.
With reporting by The Washington Post, Reuters, and AFP