Attorney general Jeff Sessions questioned in Trump-Russia inquiry

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has been interviewed by Robert Mueller, as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, a justice department spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

Sarah Isgur Flores confirmed to the Guardian that the meeting took place. The New York Times first reported the meeting on Tuesday morning.

It was also reported on Tuesday that the special counsel is seeking to interview Donald Trump in relation to the president’s decision to fire former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former FBI director James Comey.

The Washington Post reported that Trump’s lawyers are negotiating the terms of an interview with the special counsel, with the president’s legal team preferring that he answer some questions in person and others in a written statement.

John Dowd, an attorney for Trump, declined to comment.

Mueller’s reported focus on the firings of Flynn and Comey is the latest indication that the special counsel’s team is zeroing in on potential obstruction of justice issues.

Earlier this month, Mueller reportedly called back a key witness in the infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between senior campaign officials and a Russian lawyer connected to the Kremlin. Trump’s elder son, Donald Trump Jr, accepted the meeting after being offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton and informed of an effort by Moscow to aid his father’s campaign.

Comey was also reportedly interviewed by the special counsel’s office.

That interview reportedly took place last year and pertained to a series of memos Comey wrote, while he was FBI director, about his conversations with Trump about the Russia investigation. Trump fired Comey in May 2017, raising concerns that he tried to obstruct the FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russians.

Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said the White House was going to be “fully cooperative with special counsel and continue to do that throughout the process”. But she declined to answer questions about specific interviews.

The special counsel’s office is investigating a Kremlin campaign to meddle in the 2016 election, including the hacking of Democratic party members’ emails and their release to the public. Led by former FBI director Robert Mueller, the team is also investigating interactions between members of Trump’s campaign and Russians potentially involved in those efforts.

The meeting between Mueller and Sessionslasted several hours and took place last week, marking the first time the special counsel’s office has interviewed a sitting member of Trump’s cabinet.

Background

Robert S Mueller III, 73, is a former FBI director who was appointed by George W Bush and held over by Barack Obama beyond his 10-year term. The term extension required special congressional action which the Senate approved 100-0. Previously, Mueller held two different US attorney posts and was an assistant attorney general in the George HW Bush administration.

Special counsel

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017, eight days after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. A special counsel is a prosecutor appointed in extraordinary circumstances or in cases of conflicts of interest within the justice department. In this case, there was a need for someone to investigate the Russian matter who was not appointed by or beholden to Trump.

Mueller’s team of 17 lawyers operates independently of, but (ideally) in cooperation with, Congress, which has three committees conducting investigations in parallel to Mueller. Mueller is expected to submit a report to Congress and may bring criminal charges separately.

Mueller has a sizeable budget and an open-ended term. He is specifically authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” plus any matters that “may arise directly from the investigation”. He has the power to prosecute federal crimes.

Can he be replaced?

Mueller was appointed by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, with attorney general Jeff Sessions having earlier recused himself from the Russia investigation. In theory, only Rosenstein may remove Mueller, although if Trump wanted to fire Mueller, and Rosenstein were unwilling, Trump could replace Rosenstein.

Trump's view

Trump has said Mueller “is very, very good friends with [James] Comey, which is very bothersome” but also said “Robert Mueller is an honorable man.”

Sessions has long been a flashpoint in the Russia investigation. He announced in March 2017 that he would recuse himself from any role in it after it was revealed that he had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during the 2016 campaign. The former Alabama senator endorsed Trump in February 2016 and was a key surrogate during the campaign.

The attorney general’s decision to recuse himself angered Trump, who has since repeatedly criticized Sessions. In a July 2017 interview with the Times, Trump called his attorney general “very weak” and said his decision was “very unfair to the president”. Before Sessions announced he would not be involved in investigations “related in any way to the campaign for president of the United States”, Trump had dispatched the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to lobby Sessions against this decision.

The president has also drawn scrutiny for pressing Comey to drop his investigation into Flynn, according to testimony the former FBI director gave to Congress last year.

Trump denied Comey’s claim, but after firing himtold NBC he did so because, “I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

How serious are the allegations?

The story of Donald Trump and Russia comes down to this: a sitting president or his campaign is suspected of having coordinated with a foreign country to manipulate a US election. The story could not be bigger, and the stakes for Trump – and the country – could not be higher.

What are the key questions?

Investigators are asking two basic questions: did Trump’s presidential campaign collude at any level with Russian operatives to sway the 2016 US presidential election? And did Trump or others break the law to throw investigators off the trail?

What does the country think?

While a majority of the American public now believes that Russia tried to disrupt the US election, opinions about Trump campaign involvement tend to split along partisan lines: 73% of Republicans, but only 13% of Democrats, believe Trump did “nothing wrong” in his dealings with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

What are the implications for Trump?

The affair has the potential to eject Trump from office. Experienced legal observers believe that prosecutors are investigating whether Trump committed an obstruction of justice. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – the only presidents to face impeachment proceedings in the last century – were accused of obstruction of justice. But Trump’s fate is probably up to the voters. Even if strong evidence of wrongdoing by him or his cohort emerged, a Republican congressional majority would probably block any action to remove him from office. (Such an action would be a historical rarity.)

What has happened so far?

Former foreign policy adviser George Papadopolous pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin, and the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and another aide face charges of money laundering.

When will the inquiry come to an end?

The investigations have an open timeline.

Flynn resigned last February after it was revealed he misled Vice-President Mike Pence about the nature of his communications with the then-Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
After Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Trump suggested in a tweet that was the reason behind his firing, contradicting the White House’s earlier claims that the decision was made in relation to Pence.

Comey also testified that Trump had privately demanded loyalty from him, and that he had only promised “honesty”. Sessions was part of discussions around Comey’s firing, but because of his recusal the decision of a special counsel fell to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Muller.

Mueller’s investigation has so far led to charges against Flynn, for lying to the FBI, and against Trump’s former campaign chairman and one of his aides, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates respectively, on charges of conspiracy and money laundering. Another former campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and admitted to early knowledge that the Russian government possessed hacked Democratic emails. Mueller is also due to interview Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Jacobs and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington, for The Guardian on Tuesday 23rd January 2018 23.32 Europe/London

  • This article was corrected on 23 January to clarify that Robert Mueller has yet to interview Steve Bannon.

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