President Donald Trump ordered top White House lawyers to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation, The New York Times revealed Thursday, adding another item to the growing list of ways Trump may have obstructed justice.
Under the direction of the Justice Department, special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions, who heads the department, stepped down from leading the inquiry because he had been an adviser and surrogate for the Trump campaign. Sessions said his decision was based on a Justice Department regulation that stipulates a person cannot participate in a criminal investigation if he has a relationship with the person or entity being investigated. But Trump was reportedly furious at Sessions for stepping aside and mobilized White House lawyers to stop him.
Trump had expected his top law enforcement official to protect him from the investigation, according to the report. The fact that Trump attempted to influence the way the Justice Department operates adds more evidence showing the president was attempting to obstruct justice, one expert says.
“It certainly strengthens the case for obstruction. It has added fuel to the fire. He’s trying to interfere with the Department of Justice. It’s to try to stop the investigation,” Nick Akerman, an assistant special prosecutor during the Watergate investigation, told Newsweek Friday.
To determine whether Trump obstructed justice, investigators will need to determine whether there was corrupt intent or actions taken with the specific intention of halting the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians.
“What it comes down to is corrupt intent. You have to show a connection between the person’s action and their intent. But this isn’t just any investigation, it’s an investigation into Trump. So the case is starting to build, and the evidence of conspiracy and obstruction are starting to come together,” Akerman said.
For example, Trump may have also obstructed justice when he allegedly asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump denies that he ever spoke to Comey about the matter, but Comey claims to have written notes immediately following the conversation. He later testified before Congress about the FBI’s probe.
Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak. Investigators are looking into why Trump was concerned about the investigation into Flynn and whether members of the Trump campaign directed Flynn to make contact with Russia.