Trump-Russia investigation is closing in on a circle of key aides


Robert Mueller
Robert
Mueller.

Alex Wong/Getty
Images


  • Special counsel Robert Mueller is interested in
    interviewing six key aides to President Donald Trump.
  • The aides were all witnesses to critical events
    that Mueller is looking at as part of his
    investigation.
  • Those events include Trump’s decision to fire FBI
    director James Comey, the White House’s response to revelations
    that former national security adviser Michael Flynn could be
    vulnerable to Russian blackmail, and Trump’s role in drafting a
    statement in response to news that Donald Trump Jr. met with a
    Russian lawyer last June.
     

Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of
spearheading the FBI’s investigation into whether President
Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia during the
2016 election, wants to interview six current and
former Trump aides who may have information relevant to the
investigation, The Washington Post reported Friday. 

Those advisers include:

  • Hope Hicks, the interim communications director
  • Sean Spicer, the former press secretary
  • Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff
  • Don McGahn, the White House counsel
  • James Burnham, who serves as senior associate counsel
  • Josh Raffel, a top aide who works with Jared Kushner, Trump’s
    son-in-law and senior adviser 

Each of the aides, The Post reported, was witness to critical
discussions that have drawn Mueller’s scrutiny. Those events
include Trump’s bombshell
decision to fire FBI director James Comey
in May, the
administration’s inaction after it was informed that former
national security adviser Michael Flynn
could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail
, and Trump’s

role in crafting Donald Trump Jr.’s initially misleading
statement
about a meeting he took with a Kremlin-connected
lawyer last June.

Both Spicer and Priebus worked closely with Trump when they
served in the administration, and Hicks has long been one of the
president’s most trusted advisers. She was also with Trump on Air
Force One when he dictated the statement Trump Jr. first put out
regarding his meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia
Veselnitskaya. That statement had to be amended several
times after it emerged that Trump Jr. had taken the meeting after
he was offered damaging information about then-candidate Hillary
Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr.
Trump.” 

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Hicks and Josh Raffel, a top Kushner aide, were among
the advisers who believed the White House should
release a truthful statement that could not be repudiated if more
details surfaced later, the Post reported. They were ultimately
overruled. 

Raffel, who works at the White House Office of American
Innovation, which Kushner is in charge of, joined the
administration in April. 

He also
previously represented Kushner Companies when he worked for
Hiltzik Strategies, Variety 

reported
.

White House counsel Don McGahn first attracted scrutiny after
former deputy attorney general Sally Yates told the Senate
Judiciary Committee
in May that she had warned the White
House about Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s former ambassador
to the US, Sergey Kislyak, which took place during the transition
period. Flynn did not disclose his contacts with Kislyak, and
Yates said that she had “two in-person meetings and one
phone call” with McGahn in January to discuss the matter.


Sally Quillian Yates
In
this March 24, 2015 file photo, Deputy Attorney General nominee
Sally Quillian Yates testifies on Capitol Hill in
Washington.

Associated Press/Pablo
Martinez


When Yates told McGahn that Flynn could potentially be
subject to Russian blackmail because they were aware that he had
misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with
Kislyak, McGahn asked her why the Department of Justice cared if
“one White House official lied to another,” according to Yates’
testimony. 

Yates told Democratic Sen. Chris Coons that, in the course
of their meetings, “Mr. McGahn demonstrated that he understood
that this was serious.”

But she said she didn’t know if the White House took any
additional steps to restrict Flynn’s access to sensitive or
classified information. He was ultimately forced to resign in
mid-February, after The Washington Post reported on his
conversations with Kislyak, and weeks after Yates first warned
McGahn about his vulnerability. 

McGahn
was also a critical part of the process
when Trump fired
Comey in May, the New York Times reported last week. Comey’s
firing prompted deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to appoint
Mueller as special counsel heading up the Russia probe. As part
of his investigation, Mueller is reportedly looking into whether
Trump fired Comey in an effort to stymie the FBI’s investigation
into his campaign.

The weekend before officially dismissing the FBI director,
Trump
put together a draft letter laying out his reasons for firing
Comey
, with the help of White House aides Stephen Miller,
Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump. 

McGahn reportedly advised Trump against sending the
letter to Comey, and marked up the copy he was given to remove
and alter certain details that he may have believed to be
problematic. 

“We don’t know exactly what McGahn said, but the mere fact that
he put a stop to that letter is another piece of evidence that
Mueller could use” as part of the obstruction-of-justice case he
is building, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told Business
Insider
last weekend. If he finds out the details of
what McGahn said to Trump, Mueller could “say that ‘Donald
Trump was warned by the White House counsel that this was a
problematic step and decided to do it anyway.'” 

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The substance of what McGahn told Trump is important — and
there’s no guarantee that it could be withheld as privileged
information, because attorney-client privilege does not hold
between a government lawyer and a government employee in response
to a grand jury inquiry.  

If it emerges that McGahn “said anything along the lines of,
‘There’s potential criminal liability if you shut down this
investigation,’ that would be extraordinarily powerful evidence
against Trump,” Mariotti said. 

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