Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Mueller Seeks to Talk to Intelligence Officials, Hinting at Inquiry of Trump

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Robert S. Mueller III in 2012. CreditJ. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The special counsel examining Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election has requested interviews with three high-ranking current or former intelligence officials in the latest indication that he will investigate whether President Trump obstructed justice, a person briefed on the investigation said on Wednesday.
The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, wants to question Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence; Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency; and Richard Ledgett, the former N.S.A. deputy director.
None of the men were involved with Mr. Trump’s campaign. But recent news media reports have raised questions about whether Mr. Trump requested their help in trying to get James B. Comey, then the F.B.I.director, to end an investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. Last week, Mr. Coats and Admiral Rogers declined to answer questions before Congress about the matter.
Mr. Mueller’s office has also asked the N.S.A. for any documents or notes related to the agency’s interactions with the White House as part of the Russia investigation, according to an intelligence official.
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The Washington Post first reported on Wednesday that Mr. Mueller had requested the interviews with the intelligence officials.
It has been clear since Mr. Mueller was appointed last month that he was likely to scrutinize the president’s actions. Mr. Trump has said he was willing to be interviewed by Mr. Mueller’s agents. Mr. Comey said he was sure that the special counsel would investigate the possibility of obstruction.
In recent days, Mr. Trump is said to have considered firing Mr. Mueller but was talked out of it by aides. If the president is under investigation for obstruction, any move to fire Mr. Mueller would prove more complicated politically.
Even if the F.B.I. gathers information about the possibility of a crime, that does not necessarily mean prosecutors are building a case against the president. In the early stages of investigations, F.B.I. agents typically want to gather all the facts. Agents then present those facts to prosecutors who decide whether they want to take the case.
Mr. Mueller’s requests are among his first publicly known acts since he took over the investigation last month, after it was publicly revealed that Mr. Comey wrote a memo about how Mr. Trump asked him to halt the inquiry into his fired national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
In testimony on Capitol Hill last week, Mr. Comey said Mr. Mueller had a copy of that memo and several others he had written about his interactions with Mr. Trump.
A spokeswoman for the White House referred all questions on the matter to Mr. Trump’s outside lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz. A spokesman for Mr. Kasowitz said that “the F.B.I. leak of information regarding the president is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal.”
The fact that Mr. Trump’s actions are under scrutiny reflects a ripple of unintended consequences that began when the president, frustrated by the cloud of investigations into Russian collusion, fired Mr. Comey last month. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” Mr. Trump told NBC.
The White House could try to assert executive privilege to keep the intelligence officials from discussing those conversations with Mr. Mueller. But that could set up a fight in court, where judges have generally held that criminal investigators can demand to know information that would normally be privileged.
In his memos, Mr. Comey said Mr. Trump encouraged him to end an F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Flynn, an effort that Mr. Comey called “very disturbing.” There is a broad federal inquiry underway into Mr. Flynn. Among the issues being examined is whether he misled investigators about his ties to Russia, and his failure to disclose that he was working as a foreign agent of Turkey between August and November 2016 — the same time he was advising the Trump campaign.
The Justice Department appointed Mr. Mueller last month to investigate whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the outcome of last year’s presidential election. He inherited the criminal investigations into Mr. Flynn and Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Mr. Mueller also was given the authority to investigate obstruction.
While Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has never said what exactly prompted him to appoint Mr. Mueller, his decision came after The New York Times published details about an Oval Office meeting Mr. Comey had with the president at the White House in February. During the meeting, the president brought up Mr. Flynn and told Mr. Comey that “I hope you can let this go,” according to the memo. Mr. Comey told the Senate that he viewed that as a clear directive from the president to drop an investigation into Mr. Flynn.
A former senior official said Mr. Mueller’s investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials would most likely have been done in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payoffs, most likely by routing them through offshore banking centers.

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