Donald Trump appeared to order his attorney general Jeff Sessions to pull the plug “right now” on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump campaign ties to Russia with a tweet on Wednesday morning.
Trump frequently rages on Twitter about the Mueller investigation, which the president calls a “witch hunt”. Trump reportedly ordered Mueller fired in 2017 but backed down in the face of internal White House resistance. Trump has said that he regretted appointing Sessions because Sessions recused himself from matters relating to the Mueller inquiry.
The phrase “17 angry Democrats” is Trump’s shorthand for a conspiracy theory imputing political bias to the special counsel’s team. Mueller is a Republican, his direct superior is a Republican, and his teams includes members who have made political donations in the past to both Democrats and Republicans.
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, expressed alarm at the president’s order.
“The President of the United States just called on his Attorney General to put an end to an investigation in which the President, his family and campaign may be implicated,” Schiff tweeted. “This is an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight. America must never accept it.”
Press secretary Sarah Sanders denied the tweet was an order for Sessions to act. “It’s not an order, it’s the president’s opinion,” she told reporters at the White House.
Two Trump lawyers also denied that the tweet was an order. “The president has issued no order or direction to the Department of Justice on this,” lawyer Jay Sekulow said in a statement to the Washington Post.
“I think it’s very well-established the president uses tweets to express his opinion,” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the Post. “He very carefully used the word ‘should’.”
The White House has previously said that Trump’s tweets constitute official statements by the president. The attorney general was nominated by the president to his post, serves at his pleasure and may be dismissed by him at any time.
As head of the justice department, Sessions has authority over the special counsel investigation, and although he has recused himself, Sessions could disrupt the Mueller investigation by ordering deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller or by firing Rosenstein.
Sessions has made no indication of a willingness to take any such step.
Trump’s lashing out Wednesday morning appeared to be prompted by the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, which began on Tuesday and which is being prosecuted by Mueller’s team.
“These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion – a Hoax!” Trump tweeted in reference to the Manafort trial.
Trump is correct that the 18 charges of bank fraud and tax evasion that Manafort currently faces in federal court in Virginia do not directly relate to alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. In the five months he led the Trump campaign, Manafort remained in contact with his partners in Ukraine and Russia, at least one of whom had Russian intelligence ties, and Manafort offered a Russian oligarch private briefings on the campaign.
Mueller has indicted 31 individuals, including 12 Russian intelligence agents, and three former Trump aides have reached plea deals with prosecutors. Late on Tuesday it emerged that Mueller had referred a new case, involving the alleged failure of a Democratic lobbyist and a former Republican congressman to register as foreign agents, to prosecutors in New York.
Previously, Mueller referred a case involving former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to prosecutors in New York.