WASHINGTON – White House counsel Don McGahn and other Trump administration officials sought to persuade Jeff Sessions to remain in control of the investigation into Russia's election interference, even as the attorney general faced mounting pressure last year to recuse himself, according to two officials familiar with the matter.
The disclosures from the officials, who were not authorized to comment publicly about private communications, raise questions about President Trump's personal involvement in deterring the federal investigation into Russia's election interference.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is also investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation, has been aware of the contacts by McGahn and others for months, one official said.
The contacts were made amid a chaotic whirl of events leading up to Sessions's ultimate March recusal. During that time, McGahn reached out to Sessions to indicate that he did not have to disqualify himself after failing to disclose his own contacts with Russians during the campaign. But it wasn't just him, the sources said Friday, noting that other administration officials offered similar counsel.
The contacts were not an attempt to pressure Sessions, the officials said. Rather, the communications were described as advice that officials would provide as part of their duties.
The New York Times, which first revealed McGahn's contacts, reported that Trump himself instructed his counsel to persuade Sessions not to step aside from the inquiry into Russia's campaign of cyberattacks and fake news to influence the election in favor of Trump, which continues to cast a pall over the administration.
It was not immediately clear how many times McGahn and others had reached out to the attorney general, and one official said the contacts often ran late into the night as the attorney general's decision became imminent.
Sessions's ultimate decision to recuse for failing to disclose prior contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign so angered Trump that Sessions, one of the president's earliest and strongest supporters, offered to resign.
Although his resignation was not accepted, the wedge between Trump and his attorney general has only widened, with the president last summer publicly rebuking his attorney general as "beleaguered'' and "weak" last summer.
Trump went so far as to say that he would not have chosen Sessions for the top Justice post if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself from Russia.
Sessions's recusal remains a critical flash-point for the administration. Trump still blames his attorney general for the escalation of the now far-flung Russia investigation. In an interview with The Times, Trump suggested that former Attorney General Eric Holder had provided cover for President Obama on several politically-charged matters.
"It’s too bad Jeff recused himself," Trump said. "I like Jeff, but it’s too bad he recused himself... Many people will tell you that. I don’t want to get into loyalty, but... I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him."
The ongoing Russia inquiry includes whether Trump sought to obstruct the investigation when he abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the Russia probe. Shortly after, news reports revealing that Trump asked Comey to drop parts of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn led to the appointment of former FBI Director Mueller to lead the investigation.
Mueller's inquiry so far has produced criminal charges against four former campaign officials, including Flynn, who pleaded guilty last month for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak.