Trump says he backs ‘cooperative’ approach to Russia probe

Image: FILE PHOTO: Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing members of the U.S. Senate on his investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly condemned as a “witch hunt” a federal probe into possible collusion between Moscow and his presidential campaign, said on Thursday he backed a “cooperative” approach to the investigation.

“I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller,” Trump said in a Twitter message, referring to the special counsel leading the investigation.

Mueller, appointed by the Justice Department, is investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

Russia denies U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that it interfered in the campaign to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favour. Trump has denied any collusion and has repeatedly attacked Mueller’s investigation as politically motivated.

Trump’s irritation erupted again this week after an FBI raid targeting his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, which followed a referral by Mueller. This raised concerns among critics and lawmakers, including some in Trump’s own Republican Party, that he might try to have Mueller removed.

The president denied a New York Times report on Tuesday that he had sought to fire Mueller in December. “If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him,” he said on Twitter early Thursday.

White House lawyers Ty Cobb and Donald McGahn have told Trump that firing Mueller would leave him vulnerable to charges of obstruction of justice, two officials told Reuters on Tuesday. They said he must have “good cause” to order the Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to oust Mueller.

ADVICE FROM FORMER AIDE

Steve Bannon, a former senior adviser to Trump, has encouraged White House aides to advise Trump to fire Rosenstein, the Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing unidentified sources. It also said Bannon wanted the White House to stop cooperating with the Mueller investigation and fire Cobb.

Cobb, the lawyer in charge of the White House response to the Russia investigation, has stressed cooperation with Mueller. The White House has said it has turned over tens of thousands of pages of documents to the special counsel’s team.

Trump said in one of his Twitter messages on Thursday that he had full confidence in Cobb.

A bipartisan group of senators put forward legislation on Wednesday to protect Mueller and his investigation, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider next week.

“Anyone advising the President – in public or over the airwaves – to fire Bob Mueller does not have the President or the nation’s best interest at heart. Full stop,” Republican Senator Orrin Hatch wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Tim Ahmann; Editing by John Stonestreet, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)

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