In a sign that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election will remain a continuing distraction for the White House, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is in talks with the West Wing about interviewing current and former senior administration officials, including the recently ousted White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, according to three people who were briefed on the discussions.
Mueller has asked the White House about specific meetings, who attended them and whether there are any notes, transcripts or documents about them, two of the people said. Among the matters Mueller wants to ask the officials about is President Donald Trump’s decision in May to fire the FBI director, James Comey, the two people said.
That line of questioning will be important as Mueller continues to investigate whether Trump obstructed justice in the dismissal of Comey.
No interviews have been scheduled, but in recent weeks Mueller’s investigation has appeared to intensify. Late last month, he took the aggressive step of executing a search warrant at the home of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, in Alexandria, Va. Legal experts say that Mueller may be trying to put pressure on Manafort to cooperate with the investigation.
Although it has been clear for months that Mueller would interview Trump’s closest advisers, Mueller’s recent inquiries come as Trump is heading into the fall pushing his priorities in Congress, including a tax overhaul, with the constant distraction of an ongoing federal investigation.
Ty Cobb, a special counsel to the president, declined to comment, saying only that the White House would “continue to fully cooperate.” He has frequently said that the White House will cooperate with Mueller’s investigation and that he hopes it will be completed quickly. Priebus did not return messages seeking comment.
Mueller has expressed interest in speaking with other administration officials, including members of the communications team. But Trump’s allies are particularly concerned about Mueller’s interest in talking to Priebus, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who worked closely with Trump during the presidential campaign. Trump’s confidants at the White House say Trump was never fully convinced that Priebus would be loyal to him.
Shortly after the November election, Priebus was made chief of staff, and he was involved in the major decisions the president made during the transition and in the first six months of the administration. Priebus made a point of being in most meetings and tried to be aware of what the president was doing. Trump fired him last month.
Priebus can potentially answer many questions Mueller has about what occurred during the campaign and in the White House. Priebus appears on Manafort’s calendar on the same day in June 2016 that Manafort and other campaign officials — including Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and son-in-law Jared Kushner — attended a meeting with Russians who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton, according to two people briefed on the matter. It is not clear whether Priebus and Manafort did meet that day.
According to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation, Comey met with Priebus at the White House on Feb. 8 — a week before Comey said Trump cornered him in the Oval Office and asked him to end an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. In Comey’s meeting with Priebus, Comey told Priebus about a Justice Department policy that largely bars discussions between White House officials and the FBI about continuing investigations in order to prevent political meddling — or at least the appearance of it — in the bureau’s work, according to the law enforcement official.
It is not clear whether Priebus ever relayed that message to the president. Trump’s Republican allies — including the House speaker, Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — have said that Trump may have asked Comey to end the investigation because he was a new president who did not understand the subtleties of how the commander in chief should interact with the FBI.
Priebus may also be able to help prosecutors verify crucial details about Trump’s interactions with Comey. According to testimony Comey provided to Congress, Priebus knows that Comey had the one-on-one encounter with Trump on Feb. 14, when Comey has said that Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation. Trump has said that the meeting did not occur and that he did not ask Comey to end the inquiry.
Comey said in his testimony to Congress that on Feb. 14, Trump had Priebus, the attorney general, the vice president and other senior administration officials removed from the Oval Office after a counterterrorism briefing.
“The president began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the vice president,” Comey said.
“The president then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information — a concern I shared and still share. After he had spoken for a few minutes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The president waved at him to close the door, saying he would be done shortly. The door closed.”
Right after the door closed, Comey said, Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation.