WASHINGTON — Poised to bask in the triumph of his first major legislative victory, President Donald Trump’s team on Sunday was again forced to grapple with the growing Russia probe that has shadowed the White House for much of the president’s initial year in office.
Republicans in Congress planned to muscle through tax cut legislation this week but Washington was equally fixated on speculation about the next steps from Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing whether the president’s campaign coordinated with Russian officials during last year’s election. Mueller has gained access to thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials before the start of his administration, yielding attacks from transition lawyers and renewing chatter that Trump may act to end the investigation.
Though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was doing a victory lap on the tax bill on the Sunday talk show circuit, but first had to field questions on CNN’s “State of the Union” about whether believed Trump would trigger the process to fire Mueller.
“I don’t have any reason to think that the president is going to do that, but that’s obviously up to him,” said Mnuchin.
Mnuchin added that “we have got to get past this investigation, it’s a giant distraction” but declined to elaborate on how he would want it to end. Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, was also peppered with questions about Mueller’s fate during his own appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and again urged a quick end to the investigation but insisted that Trump has not discussed firing Mueller.
“There’s no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House,” Short said.
But even as the administration continued to pledge its cooperation with Mueller, Trump allies have ratcheted up their claims that the investigation is unlawful and compromised. On Saturday, the general counsel for the transition group sent a letter to two congressional committees arguing Mueller’s investigators had improperly obtained thousands of transition records.
The investigators did not directly request the records from Trump’s still-existing transition group, Trump for America, and instead obtained them from the General Services Administration, a separate federal agency that stored the material, according to those familiar with the Trump transition organization.
A spokesman for Mueller said the records were obtained appropriately.
“When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” said Peter Carr.
But many Trump allies used the email issue as another cudgel with which to bash the probe’s credibility. Members of the conservative media and some congressional Republicans have begun to systematically question Mueller’s motives while the president himself called it a “disgrace” that some texts and emails from two FBI agents contained anti-Trump rhetoric. One of those agents was on Mueller’s team and has been removed.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide, called the investigation an “attack on the presidency” and told CNN there are “more and more indications that the Mueller investigation is off the rails.”
The talk of firing Mueller has set off alarm bells among many Democrats, who warn it could trigger a constitutional crisis.
Some Republicans also advised against the move, including Senator John Cornyn of Texas who deemed the idea “a mistake.”
The rumor mill overshadowed the Republican tax plan, which is set to be voted on this week. The measure would give the largest breaks to the richest Americans but Trump has attempted to sell the bill as a “Christmas present” for middle-class Americans in part because it would trigger job growth.
“As a candidate, I promised we would pass a massive TAX CUT for the everyday working American families who are the backbone and the heartbeat of our country. Now, we are just days away…,” Trump said in a tweet from Camp David, where he is spending the weekend.
The White House and Republicans on the Hill are eager to claim a victory at the end of what has been a disappointing legislative year for the party that controls the White and both houses of Congress. At the same time, the GOP is reckoning with a brewing intraparty war that helped cost it a Senate seat in Alabama.
Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama’s supreme court, lost a special election on Tuesday, handing Democrats their first Senate seat in Alabama in a generation and cutting Republican control of the Senate to just two, 51-49.
Moore was aggressively backed by ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has vowed to challenge establishment Republicans.
Despite the defeat, Bannon has vowed to press on with his insurgency in next year’s mid-term elections.
“I think the explanation for Alabama was we had a flawed candidate who won the Republican primary and who couldn’t win the general election,” Cornyn said on ABC’s “This Week.” ”Bannon can do whatever he sees fit. It’s a free country. But I don’t think his track record, particularly now in losing Alabama, one of the reddest states in the country, particularly commends him for his expertise.”
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.