US President Donald Trump confirmed on Sunday that he has no plans to sack FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the “Russia collusion” probe, recently marred by conflicts of interest and improper conduct claims.
Trump echoed various Republican officials who said over the weekend that he was not considering Mueller’s dismissal. “No, I’m not,” Trump said upon returning from a trip to Camp David.
With new accusations brought against the investigators by Trump’s transition team lawyer on Saturday, a number of high-profile White House officials came forward to tell the media that the president was not entertaining the option.
In a letter to Congress on Saturday, the lawyer, Kory Langhofer, alleged that Mueller’s office had violated the US constitution by “unlawfully” obtaining troves of emails from a government agency that hosted the transition team’s servers. The emails reportedly included confidential lawyer to client communication.
According to Langhofer, “tens of thousands” of emails were inappropriately managed by the General Service Administration, which handed over the emails without notifying the transition team.
Mueller was quick to dismiss the allegations, with his spokesman Peter Carr arguing on Sunday that the Special Counsel’s office followed due procedure when he sought the emails. “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” he said, as cited by CNN.
Trump said the allegations were “not looking good. It’s quite sad to see that. My people are very upset about it. I can’t imagine there’s anything on ’em, frankly, because as we said, there’s no collusion.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning that he doesn’t have “any reason to believe” Trump was going to fire Mueller. Noting that Mueller’s fate is ultimately still up to Trump, he dubbed the embattled probe “a giant distraction.”
Another senior Trump aide, director of legislative affairs March Short, told NBC: “There’s no conversation about that whatsoever” in the president’s circles.
It has been reported that Trump’s transition team officials would ask Mueller to return emails so they could seed out those involving “privilege” communications and redact them before handing them over.
Speculation about Mueller’s looming dismissal was stirred up by Democrats, who accused the White House of putting pressure on the investigative team.
In a Friday interview, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California) claimed that there was a “rumor” spreading among lawmakers that Trump was poised to fire Mueller before Christmas. She even named an exact date when Trump would make the decision: December 22.
The Democrats are pushing for bipartisan bills to be passed by Congress to protect Mueller from what they see as encroachment by Team Trump. Such measures are an “absolute necessary step,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said earlier in December.
The two bills, sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, seek to limit Trump’s ability to sack Mueller. The first one, put forward by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) grants Mueller the possibility of a judicial review of the decision, while a bill by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) requests Trump to get a federal court approval if he moves to fire Mueller.
The ever-widening probe has so far produced little fruit in terms of finding evidence of an alleged collusion between Trump, who repeatedly labelled the investigation a “witch hunt,” and Moscow, while costing the Justice Department $3.5 million.
So far, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Richard Gates have been indicted in the probe. However, the charges against them have focused on their lobbying in Ukraine between 2006 and 2016, not Russia. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign aide George Papadopolous plead guilty to misleading FBI about their contacts with the Russian government that by itself does not equal “collusion.”
The probe, meanwhile, has been rocked by claims of conflict of interest after it was revealed that several of Mueller’s staffers were in one way or another connected to former democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s camp, and were openly critical of Trump even before the probe was launched.