An investigation that President Donald Trump tried to contain by firing James Comey from atop the FBI now appears to include the president himself.
What started as a probe of Russian interference of the 2016 election turned into a special counsel-led investigation of whether Trump associates colluded with Russia. Now the inquiry is reportedly examining whether Trump himself tried to obstruct justice — a development that became public on the night of Trump’s 71st birthday.
The Washington Post and New York Times, citing sources, both reported on Wednesday night that the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller is seeking interviews with current and recently resigned top intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency head Mike Rogers.
Questions have been raised about whether Trump sought their help in squelching the FBI investigation led by Comey, who was fired by Trump last month. Coats and Rogers declined to answer questions about their interactions with the president on the Russia subject during a Senate hearing last week.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined to comment on the reports.
In a statement, the NSA said it "will fully cooperate with the special counsel. We are not in a position to comment further."
On Tuesday, Mueller met with senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee in a classified briefing on Capitol Hill. Mueller’s meeting included discussion of his parallel investigations, but a source present at the meeting said the specifics of Mueller’s investigation — including whether he’s investigating Trump for potential obstruction of justice — was not discussed.
A spokesman for Mark Warner, the committee’s ranking Democrat, declined to comment on the meeting.
The reported moves by Mueller and his team, while potentially significant, would not be surprising, especially with the heads of the top intelligence agencies that publicly stated during the 2016 campaign Russia had hacked the American election. For context, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney sat for interviews in their offices during special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the Valerie Plame CIA identity leak case.
Veteran U.S. national security, white-collar and White House scandal experts all say it is an expected next step in such an investigation, especially one in which there have been so many public statements from numerous parties that suggest at least the possibility of obstruction of justice, including from Trump himself.
Adam Goldberg, a former Clinton White House crisis communications official, said in an interview that he expects Mueller to tap anyone Comey mentioned last week in his public testimony related to the Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting where Trump allegedly pulled the FBI chief aside and urged him to “let this go” with regards to the probe into Michael Flynn, who had just been fired from his post as national security adviser.
Vice President Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner were in the room before Trump asked them to leave, Comey testified.
“If you’re Mueller, you’d want to know from Priebus what the president told him after that meeting. And you’d want to know what he told Jared,” Goldberg said. “All the senior staff are potential grand jury witnesses.”
Efforts to question current and former U.S. intelligence agency leaders should not be interpreted as a reflection of any finding of possible wrongdoing, these experts say, but rather a standard procedure by the special counsel investigators as they work to assemble as complete a picture of the facts as possible in order to define the contours of what is expected to be a lengthy and probably wide-ranging investigation.
“Nobody has an obligation to sit for an interview. Therefore everything about it is negotiable, because you have no duty to do it,” said a prominent D.C.-based white-collar lawyer who has worked on past White House scandals. The attorney explained that it’s common for the special counsel and interview subjects to cut deals on all aspects of the conversation, from where it takes place to tape recording the meeting to making a transcript. Mueller could even grant informal immunity for a day.
News of Mueller’s interview plans with the intelligence chiefs comes in the recent aftermath of Trump associates publicly floating the idea that Trump might fire Mueller — or press the Justice Department to do so. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday that Trump had "no intention" of firing Mueller "at this time."
Potential focus on obstruction of justice could be ominous for Trump. His supporters have argued that his conversations with Comey — which the fired FBI director detailed at a congressional hearing last week — did not amount to intimidation and that Trump did nothing untoward.
Comey said at the Senate hearing that he had an associate leak detailed memos about his conversations with Trump in part because he felt so uncomfortable with Trump’s conversations with him and hoped to push the Justice Department into appointing a special counsel.
Josh Dawsey, Josh Gerstein and Austin Wright contributed to this report.