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Mueller examining Trump’s tweets in wide-ranging obstruction inquiry

Robert Mueller is looking at tweets about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI director James Comey.
Robert Mueller is looking at tweets about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI director James Comey.(Doug Mills/The New York Times/File 2017)

WASHINGTON — For years, President Trump has used Twitter as his go-to public relations weapon, mounting a barrage of attacks on celebrities and then political rivals even after advisers warned he could be creating legal problems for himself.

Those concerns now turn out to be well founded. The special counsel, Robert Mueller, is scrutinizing tweets and negative statements from the president about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI director James Comey, according to three people briefed on the matter.

Several of the remarks came as Trump was also privately pressuring the men — both key witnesses in the inquiry — about the investigation, and Mueller is examining whether the actions add up to attempts to obstruct the investigation by both intimidating witnesses and pressuring senior law enforcement officials to tamp down the inquiry.

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Mueller wants to question the president about the tweets. His interest in them is the latest addition to a range of presidential actions he is investigating as a possible obstruction case: private interactions with Comey, Sessions and other senior administration officials about the Russia inquiry; misleading White House statements; public attacks; and possible pardon offers to potential witnesses.

Meanwhile, federal investigators in Manhattan have asked to interview Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, as part of their investigation into the president’s former lawyer Michael D. Cohen, according to two people familiar with the matter.

It was not clear whether Weisselberg was issued a subpoena or was asked to answer questions voluntarily. Either way, the development suggests that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are scrutinizing at least some financial dealings of the Trump family business, a line that the president has publicly warned Mueller not to cross.

The New York prosecutors, who are operating on a separate track from Mueller’s team, are investigating Cohen on a number of fronts, including payments he arranged before the presidential election to women who had claimed that they had affairs with Trump. The prosecutors’ interest in Weisselberg was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

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The development set off alarm bells within the Trump Organization, an umbrella company for Trump’s holdings, because of the scope of Weisselberg’s responsibilities. He has handled its finances for decades, has been involved with the Trump Foundation, has managed the president’s private trust and has at times reviewed the Trump presidential campaign’s books.

In Washington, none of what Mueller has homed in on constitutes obstruction, Trump’s lawyers said. They argued that most of the presidential acts under scrutiny, including the firing of Comey, fall under Trump’s authority as the head of the executive branch and insisted that he should not even have to answer Mueller’s questions about obstruction.

But privately, some of the lawyers have expressed concern that Mueller will stitch together several episodes, encounters, and pieces of evidence, like the tweets, to build a case that the president embarked on a broad effort to interfere with the investigation. Prosecutors who lack one slam-dunk piece of evidence in obstruction cases often search for a larger pattern of behavior, legal experts said.

The special counsel’s investigators have told Trump’s lawyers they are examining the tweets under a wide-ranging obstruction-of-justice law beefed up after the Enron accounting scandal, according to the three people. The investigators did not explicitly say they were examining possible witness tampering, but the nature of the questions they want to ask the president, and the fact that they are scrutinizing his actions under a section of the United States Code titled “Tampering With a Witness, Victim, or an Informant,” raised concerns for his lawyers about Trump’s exposure in the investigation.

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A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined to comment.

Trump’s lead lawyer in the case, Rudy Giuliani, dismissed Mueller’s interest in the tweets as part of a desperate quest to sink the president.

“If you’re going to obstruct justice, you do it quietly and secretly, not in public,” Giuliani said.

Giuliani was referring to more typical obstruction cases, where prosecutors focus on measures taken in private, like bribing witnesses, destroying evidence, or lying under oath. While some of Trump’s private acts are under scrutiny, like asking Comey for loyalty, his public conduct is as well. That sets this investigation apart, even from those of other presidents; Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton were accused of privately trying to influence witness testimony.

But as in those cases, federal investigators are seeking to determine whether Trump was trying to use his power to punish anyone who did not go along with his attempts to curtail the investigation.

Investigators want to ask Trump about the tweets he wrote about Sessions and Comey and why he has continued to publicly criticize Comey and former deputy FBI director Andrew G. McCabe, another witness against the president. They also want to know about a January episode in the Oval Office in which Trump asked the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, about reports that McGahn told investigators about the president’s efforts to fire Mueller himself last year.

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