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An obstruction investigation shows Trump’s struggle to continue investigating Russia

Among the other episodes, Mr. Trump described the Russian investigation as "invented and politically motivated" in a letter he intended to send to the F.B.I. director at that time, James B. Comey, but White House aides prevented him from sending. Mr. Mueller has also substantiated claims that Mr. Comey made in a series of memoranda describing disturbing interactions with the president before being fired in May.


Legal experts said that of the two main issues that the special attorney, Robert S. Mueller III, seems to be investigating – if Mr. Trump obstructed justice while he was in office and if there was collusion between the campaign of Trump and Russia – there is currently a broader body of public evidence linking the president to a possible crime of obstruction.

Doug Mills / The New York Times

The special lawyer received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump's former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, showing that Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation. The president's determination to fire Mr. Comey even led a White House lawyer to take the extraordinary step of tricking Mr. Trump into whether he had the authority to dismiss him.

The New York Times also learned that four days earlier Mr. Comey was fired, one of Mr. Sessions' aides asked a member of Congress staff if he had any damaging information about Mr. Comey, as part of Mr. an apparent effort to undermine the FBI. director. It was not clear if Mr. Mueller's investigators knew about this episode.

Mr. Mueller has also been examining a false statement the president issued on Air Force One in July in response to an article in The Times about a meeting that Trump campaign officials had with the Russians in 2016. A new book, "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, "by Michael Wolff, says that the president's attorneys believed that the statement was" an explicit attempt to put sand in the gears of the investigation, "and that it led to one of Mr.'s spokesmen. Trump to resign because he believed it was an obstruction of justice.

Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer who deals with the special lawyer's investigation, declined to comment.

Mr. Trump's lawyers said the president had cooperated fully with the investigation and expressed confidence that the investigation will soon be over. They said that they believed that the president would be exonerated, and that they expected that conclusion to be made public.

Legal experts said that of the two main issues that Mr. Mueller seems to be investigating: if Mr. Trump obstructed justice while he was in the office and if there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – there is currently a broader body of public evidence linking the president to a possible crime of obstruction.

But the experts are divided on whether the accumulated evidence is enough for Mr. Mueller to bring a case of obstruction. They said it could be difficult to prove that the president, who has broad authority over the executive branch, including the hiring and firing of officials, had corrupt intentions when he took measures such as expelling the F.B.I. director. Some experts said the case would be stronger if there was evidence that the president had told the witnesses to lie under oath.


Donald F. McGahn II, White House lawyer, argued to Mr. Sessions that he did not have to recuse himself from the Russian investigation until he has made progress.

Al Drago / The New York Times

The stories of the episodes are based on documents reviewed by The Times, as well as interviews with White House officials and others informed about the investigation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified to discuss ongoing investigation.

Regardless of whether Mr. Mueller believes that there is sufficient evidence to present a case against the president, Mr. Trump's belief is that his attorney general should protect him by providing an important window on how he governs. Presidents have had close relationships with their attorneys general, but Mr. Trump's obsession with loyalty is particularly unusual, especially given the Department of Justice's investigation of him and his associates.

Gambit of a lawyer

It was the end of February when Mr. Sessions decided to take the counsel of the career Justice Department and challenge the Russian investigation.

The pressure to make public that decision grew days later when The Washington Post reported that Mr. Sessions had met during the presidential campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The revelation raised questions about whether Mr. Sessions had cheated Congress a few weeks earlier during his confirmation hearing, when he told lawmakers he had not met with the Russians during the campaign.

Not knowing that Mr. Sessions had decided to deviate from the investigation, the Democrats began calling Mr. Sessions to challenge himself, and Mr. Trump told Mr. McGahn to start a campaign lobby to stop it.

Mr. McGahn's argument for Mr. Sessions that day was twofold: that he did not need to depart from the investigation until he was more advanced, and that the recusal would not stop the Democrats from saying he had lied. After Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that the Justice Department officials of his career had said he should step aside, Mr. McGahn said he understood and backed down.

Mr. Trump's frustrations with the investigation erupted again about three weeks later, when Mr. Comey publicly said for the first time that the Justice Department and the F.B.I. They were conducting an investigation into the links between Mr. Trump's campaign and Russia. Mr. Comey had told Mr. Trump privately that he was not personally under investigation, however, Mr. Comey angered Mr. Trump by refusing to answer a question about that at the hearing where he spoke publicly.


James B. Comey, the FBI director, refused to answer questions from lawmakers about whether Mr. Trump was under investigation during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

After that hearing, Mr. Trump began openly discussing with White House officials his desire to fire Mr. Comey. This made some nervous inside the White House lawyer's office, and even led one of Mr. McGahn's deputies to deceive the president about his authority to fire the F.B.I. director.

The lawyer, Uttam Dhillon, was convinced that if Mr. Comey was fired, the Trump presidency could be in danger, because it would force the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether Mr. Trump was trying to derail the Russian investigation.

The long-running analysis of the presidential power says that the president, as head of the executive branch, does not need to dismiss the FBI. director. Mr. Dhillon, a veteran Justice Department attorney before joining Trump's White House, assigned a junior attorney to examine this matter. That lawyer determined that the F.B.I. the director was no different from any other employee in the executive branch, and there was nothing that prohibited the president from firing him.

But Mr. Dhillon, who had told Mr. Trump earlier that he needed a cause to dismiss Mr. Comey, never corrected the record, withholding the conclusions of his investigation.

Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas Law School, called the episode "extraordinary" and added that he could not think of a similar one that "This shows that the president's lawyers do not trust give all the facts because they fear making a decision that is not the most appropriate for him, "said Vladeck.

for Dirt

Attempts to stop Mr. Trump from firing Mr. Comey were successful until May 3, when the FBI director once again testified on Capitol Hill. He spent much of the time describing a series of decisions he had made during the bureau's investigation of Hillary Clinton's personal e-mail account.


Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Sessions for withdrawing from the Russian investigation and questioning his loyalty.

Doug Mills / The New York Times

Once again, Mr. Comey refused to answer questions from lawmakers about whether Mr. Trump was under investigation.

The White House aides gave Mr. Trump updates, informing him of Mr. Comey's refusal to clean it publicly. Mr. Trump discharged Mr. Sessions, who was in the White House that day. He criticized him for having withdrawn from the Russian investigation, questioned his loyalty and said he wanted to get rid of Mr. Comey. He repeated the saying that the attorneys general for Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Obama had protected the White House.

In an interview with The Times last month, Trump said he believed Mr. Holder had protected Obama.

"When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the weapons for whatever, when you see all the awful, aah, real problems they had, not the invented problems like the Russian collusion, these were real problems," said Trump. "When you look at the things they did, and Holder protected the president, and I respect him a lot, I will be."

Two days after Mr. Comey's testimony, an aide from Mr. Sessions approached a Capitol Hill staff member to ask if the staff member had any pejorative information about F.B.I. director. The attorney general wanted a negative article in the media about Mr. Comey, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said the episode did not happen. "This did not happen and it will not happen," said spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. "Clear and simple."

That same day, Rod J. Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, had removed one of Mr. McGahn's deputies after a meeting at the Department of Justice. Mr. Rosenstein told the assistant that the best White House and Justice Department attorneys needed to discuss Mr. Comey's future. It is not clear if this conversation was related to the effort to unearth land on Mr. Comey.

Mr. Trump spent next weekend at his country club in Bedminster, N.J., where he saw a recording of Mr. Comey's testimony, stewed on the F.B.I. Director and discussed the possibility of firing him with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller. He had decided to dismiss Mr. Comey and asked Mr. Miller to help prepare a letter that the president intended to send to Mr. Comey.

In interviews with The Times, White House officials said the letter contained no references to Russia or the FBI investigation. According to two people who have read it, however, the first sentence of the letter said that the Russian investigation had been "fabricated and politically motivated."

On Monday, May 8, Mr. Trump met with Mr. Sessions and Mr. Rosenstein to discuss the dismissal of Mr. Comey, and Mr. Rosenstein agreed to write his own memo explaining why Mr. Comey should be fired. Before writing it, he took a copy of the letter that Mr. Trump and Mr. Miller had written during the weekend in Bedminster.

The president fired Mr. Comey the next day.

A week later, The Times reported that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey in February to close the federal investigation on Michael T. Flynn, who at that time was the national security adviser. The next day, Mr. Rosenstein announced that he had appointed Mr. Mueller as a special lawyer.

Once again, Mr. Trump erupted Mr. Sessions upon hearing the news. At a meeting of the Oval Office, the president said that the attorney general had been disloyal to have withdrawn from the Russian investigation, and told Mr. Sessions to resign.

Mr. Sessions sent his letter of resignation to the president the next day. But Mr. Trump rejected it, sending it back with a handwritten note on top.

"Not accepted," the note said.

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