Politics

Wary of Mueller, Trump’s team is investigating his investigators

FILE — Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and special counsel who is leading the Russia investigation, leaves the Capitol in Washington, June 21, 2017. President Donald Trump’s team is looking for information that could get investigators recused or justify firing Mueller, according to three people with knowledge of the research effort. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and special counsel who is leading the Russia investigation, left the Capitol in Washington.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s lawyers and aides are scouring the professional and political backgrounds of investigators hired by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation — or even build a case to fire Mueller or get some members of his team recused, according to three people with knowledge of the research effort.

The search for potential conflicts is wide-ranging. It includes scrutinizing donations to Democratic candidates, investigators’ past clients, and Mueller’s relationship with James Comey, whose firing as FBI director is part of the special counsel’s investigation.

Meanwhile, Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members, and even himself in connection with the probe, The Washington Post reported, quoting one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.

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Trump’s legal team declined to comment on the issue. But one adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation. ‘‘This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’ ” a close adviser said.

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The effort to investigate the investigators is another sign of a looming showdown between Trump and Mueller, who has assembled a team of high-powered prosecutors and agents to examine whether any of Trump’s advisers aided Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.

Some of the investigators have vast experience prosecuting financial malfeasance, and the prospect that Mueller’s inquiry could evolve into an expansive examination of Trump’s financial history has stoked fears among the president’s aides. Both Trump and his aides have said publicly they are watching closely to ensure Mueller’s investigation remains narrowly focused on the election.

During an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, Trump said that he was aware members of Mueller’s team had potential conflicts of interest and that he would make the information available “at some point.”

Trump also said Mueller would be going outside his mandate if he begins investigating matters unrelated to Russia, like the president’s personal finances. Trump repeatedly declined to say what he might do if Mueller appeared to exceed that mandate. But his comments to The Times represented a message to Mueller.

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“The president’s making clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said during a news briefing Thursday.

Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the special counsel, declined to comment.

For weeks, Republicans have publicly identified what they see as potential conflicts among Mueller’s team of more than a dozen investigators. In particular, they have cited thousands of dollars of political donations to Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, made by Andrew Weissmann, a former senior Justice Department official. News reports have revealed similar donations by other members of Mueller’s team. Another lawyer Mueller has hired, Jeannie Rhee, represented the Clinton Foundation.

To seek a recusal, Trump’s lawyers can argue their case to Mueller or his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Justice Department has explicit rules about what constitutes a conflict of interest. Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have “a personal or political relationship” with the subject of the case. Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a “political relationship.”

By building files on Mueller’s team, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of the Clinton White House, which openly challenged independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and criticized what Clinton’s aides saw as a political witch hunt.

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Trump’s advisers are split on how far to go in challenging the independence of Mueller, a retired FBI director and one of the most respected figures in law enforcement. Some advisers have warned that dismissing Mueller would create a legal and political mess.

Nevertheless, Trump has kept up the attacks on him. In his interview with The Times, which caught members of his legal team by surprise, he focused on the fact that Mueller had interviewed to replace Comey as the FBI director just a day before Mueller was appointed special prosecutor, saying that the interview could create a conflict.

“He was sitting in that chair,” Trump said during the Oval Office interview. “He was up here, and he wanted the job.” Trump did not explain how the interview created a conflict of interest.

In addition to investigating possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s advisers, the special counsel is examining whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey. Some of Trump’s supporters have portrayed Mueller and Comey as close friends. While they worked closely together in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush and are known to respect each other, the two men are not particularly close, associates say.

Mueller’s team has begun examining financial records, and has requested documents from the IRS related to Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort, according to a senior US official. The records are from a criminal tax investigation that had been opened long before Trump’s campaign began. Manafort was never charged in that case.

Federal investigators have also contacted Deutsche Bank about Trump’s accounts, and the bank is expecting to provide information to Mueller.

A lawyer for Trump, Jay Sekulow, declined to address the potential conflicts he and the other lawyers for Trump have uncovered about Mueller’s team. He said, however, that “any good lawyer would raise, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate venue, conflict-of-interest issues.”