Washington, D.C.

Trump ‘not under investigation,’ his lawyer insists

Advisers have been forced to perform postpresidential cleanup
President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Barron Trump walk to Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House.
President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Barron Trump walk to Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House.

WASHINGTON — A member of President Donald Trump’s legal team said Sunday that the president was not under investigation by the special counsel looking into Russia’s election-year meddling, contradicting Trump’s assertion in a Friday morning tweet that he is a subject of the widening inquiry.

The denial Sunday by Jay Sekulow, one of several personal lawyers Trump has hired to represent him in the Russia case, is the latest of many examples in which the president’s aides and lawyers have scrambled to avert a public-relations mess created by Trump’s tweets, off-script remarks or leaked private conversations.

Advisers have been forced to perform postpresidential cleanup in the wake of Trump’s tweet claiming he had been wiretapped by the Obama administration, his Oval Office comments to Russian diplomats about the former FBI director, his private musings about the possibility of firing the Russia special counsel, his claim that there are recordings of White House conversations, and his comments about a “military” deportation operation.

In Sekulow’s case, his appearance on multiple Sunday morning talk shows took on the added urgency of trying to protect his client from admitting that he is in legal jeopardy during a criminal investigation, one that appears to be increasingly focused on whether Trump took steps to interfere with the normal progress of the federal inquiry.

Rod J. Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, last month named Robert B. Mueller, a former FBI director, as a special counsel to lead the sprawling investigation into the extent of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and whether any of Trump’s associates colluded in that effort.

In addition, two congressional committees have issued subpoenas for testimony and documents as part of their wide-ranging, bipartisan investigations. All three inquiries are reportedly examining whether Trump, as president, sought to impede the progress of the inquiries.

Sekulow repeatedly and forcefully denied that Sunday, saying on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program that “the president has not been and is not under investigation,” and insisting that the administration had received no information from the special counsel’s office to think otherwise.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” program, he said flatly, “The president is not a subject or target of an investigation.”

On Friday, the president wrote the opposite on Twitter, saying: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.”

Sekulow said that the message was merely a response by the president to a Washington Post article citing five unnamed sources who said Trump was under investigation in the Russia case. Sekulow said that Trump would have challenged the basic assertion of the article, but was constrained by Twitter’s limit of 140 characters per post.

“There’s a limitation on Twitter, as we all know,” Sekulow said on CNN. “And the president has a very effective utilization of social media.”

Sekulow did acknowledge on “Fox News Sunday” that he “can’t read people’s minds,” but said there had been “no notification of an investigation” of the president by Mueller.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where the president would not be aware of it,” Sekulow said on CBS.

Evidence that Mueller is in fact looking at Trump’s actions grew last week when Mueller requested interviews with three high-ranking current or former intelligence officials, according to a person briefed on the investigation. Reports have raised questions about whether Trump requested their help in trying to get James Comey, then the FBI director, to end an investigation into the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Veteran lawyers who have represented presidents during high-stakes legal cases said Trump’s repeated comments about the Russia investigation were extremely unusual. They said previous presidents would make sure to have the White House counsel’s office and their personal lawyers carefully review any comments about such an investigation before making them.

They said Sekulow’s denials Sunday were not so much a legal argument as an effort to repair the political damage from the apparent admission by Trump on Twitter.

“With all due respect to Mr. Sekulow, what he says about what Mr. Mueller is or isn’t doing will make no difference,” said Gregory B. Craig, who led the legal team defending President Bill Clinton against impeachment charges. “If Mueller thinks there is evidence that obstruction occurred, Mueller’s job is to investigate.”

Several lawyers who requested anonymity because they did not want to publicly comment on the president’s legal situation dismissed Sekulow’s comments about the president’s not having been notified that he is a target of the investigation. One noted that very few criminal investigations begin with an identified target. Rather, targets are notified much later, after evidence in the case is developed.

On Capitol Hill, members of both parties expressed exasperation with Trump’s continuing public commentary about the Russia investigation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pleaded Sunday for the president to give Mueller the room he needs to manage the inquiry.

“If I were the president, I would be welcoming this investigation,” Rubio said on CBS. “I would ask that it be thorough and completed expeditiously, and be very cooperative with it.”

Rubio added, “The best thing that can happen for the president and for America is that we have a full-scale investigation that is credible.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., accused Trump and his allies of seeking to undermine Mueller’s investigation, setting a pretext for potentially firing those leading it. Trump has reportedly told friends that he considered firing Mueller, and the president’s tweet Friday appeared aimed at Rosenstein, raising questions about whether the president might fire him, too.

“What’s happening here is the president wants to take down Bob Mueller. His lawyer wants to take down Bob Mueller,” Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “They want to lay the foundation to discredit whatever Bob Mueller comes up with. They’re essentially engaging in a scorched-earth litigation strategy that is beginning with trying to discredit the prosecutor.”

During his five months as president, Trump has repeatedly made comments that administration officials later sought to correct or explain.

After Trump repeatedly called for a “Muslim ban” during the presidential campaign, White House aides and lawyers said the travel ban he imposed shortly after taking office was not aimed at any religious group. Federal judges, however, said they had looked to the president’s own statements as they assessed the constitutionality of the effort to impose a travel ban, a case that has reached the Supreme Court.

Just weeks after taking office, Trump told reporters that new immigration policies were getting rid of “really bad dudes” and added, “It’s a military operation.” John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, quickly corrected: “No — repeat — no use of military force in immigration operations. None.”

On a Saturday morning in early March, Trump accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping, a charge that aides repeatedly struggled to explain. “I’m just going to let the tweet speak for itself,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at the time. “I think the president speaks very candidly.”

In May, word leaked out that Trump had told Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that Comey was a “nut job,” and that his firing had relieved “great pressure” on the president. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, later went on television to say that “the gist of the conversation was that the president feels as if he is hamstrung in his ability to work with Russia to find areas of cooperation because this has been obviously so much in the news.”

And after a longtime friend of Trump said this month that the president was considering whether to fire Mueller, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a spokeswoman, clarified his remarks during a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One.

“While the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so,” she said.

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