The White House and Trump’s lawyers moved quickly to minimize the president’s statement, dismissing it as merely a case of venting by a president who has grown increasingly angry with an investigation he considers illegitimate — and not a direct order to a Cabinet secretary to interfere with a continuing federal law enforcement matter.
But in saying that Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement official, should take specific action to terminate the investigation, the tweet crossed a line that Trump has never explicitly crossed — until now. It immediately raised more questions about whether Trump was attempting to obstruct justice, already an issue being examined extensively by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation.
..This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 1 augustus 2018
The trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, which entered its second day Tuesday, has made the stakes of Mueller’s investigation increasingly clear. And even as Trump was calling for the investigation to be ended, it was revealed that he had pushed his lawyers to make another attempt to reach an agreement to sit for an interview, an objective the president has long sought because of his belief that he can convince Mueller of his version of events.
But the morning tweet signified a new chapter in the public feud between the president and Sessions, the product of Trump’s rage and sense of betrayal at his attorney general for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry. That has made it impossible for the president to control an investigation that he sees as undercutting his legitimacy.
“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
Even so, before Wednesday, the president had never explicitly told Sessions publicly that he should move to end the inquiry. In a telephone interview on Wednesday after the president’s tweet, Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani, insisted that the president still had not given such an order and that he did not intend to.
“It’s not a call to action,” Giuliani said, adding that it was a sentiment that Trump and his lawyers had previously expressed publicly and one protected by the president’s constitutional right to free speech.
“He doesn’t feel that he has to intervene in the process, nor is he intervening,” Sekulow said. Trump wanted the legal process to play out, his lawyers said. “He’s expressing his opinion, but he’s not talking of his special powers he has” as president, Giuliani said.
Mueller, appointed last year to oversee the government’s Russia investigation, is already looking into some of the president’s previous Twitter posts and public statements to determine whether they reflect an intent and pattern of conduct meant to obstruct his inquiry. But Guiliani dismissed the obstruction of justice concerns, calling them a “bizarre and novel theory of obstruction by tweet,” adding that it was “idiotic.”
Still, it was clear the president’s tweet had alarmed his legal team, which swung into action almost immediately to clarify and spin it in a more favorable light, proactively calling reporters from The New York Times and other news publications to explain.
Later, Giuliani said the fact that Trump had made the statement on Twitter, “a medium that he uses for opinions,” was proof that it should not be seen as an order.
“One of the good things about using that is, he’s established a clear sort of practice now that he expresses his opinions on Twitter,” Giuliani told reporters.
But Trump has often used Twitter for policy directives meant to prompt official actions — such as when he used it last year to announce a ban of transgender troops from the military, or last week to announce he would impose sanctions on Turkey, which the Treasury Department announced Wednesday it had done at the president’s direction. He has also used the platform to tell members of his inner circle that they were fired, such as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. And the White House has said in the past that because he is the president, Trump’s tweets are to be taken as official statements.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Trump’s tweet.
Even taken at face value, the president’s suggestion would be impossible. Sessions recused himself in early 2017 from all 2016 election-related matters, in part to avoid the kind of conflicts Trump has proposed, and thus would not be in a position to make the call on whether or when to end the Russia inquiry.
The Mueller investigation has instead been overseen by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He and his principal deputy, Edward O’Callaghan, have fortnightly check-ins with the special counsel’s office. It is Rosenstein who has the power to approve or deny Mueller’s requests to bring charges.
Whether or not the president had given his attorney general a direct order, legal experts said that urging Sessions to end the inquiry was an unprecedented move, one that amounted to Trump asking Sessions to “subvert the law,” according to Matthew S. Axelrod, a longtime prosecutor who served in top roles in the Obama Justice Department.
“What he’s saying here is that there’s no one who ought to be able to investigate his actions and, if necessary, hold him accountable for those actions,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod said this request of Sessions was part of a larger pattern — one in which Trump attacked the integrity of the special counsel, attacked the news media and attacked the courts, “all institutions designed to provide checks on executive authority and executive overreach,” he said.