'A cynical distraction': Trump's lawyers have a new demand as the Russia probe begins to touch the White House

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  • President Donald Trump’s legal team is calling for a second special counsel to investigate possible bias and anti-Trump sentiment in the Department of Justice and the FBI.
  • The demand comes on the heels of multiple reports that say the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is drilling down on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
  • Legal experts called Trump’s defence team’s statements “political noise” meant to distract from the fact that the Russia investigation is now close to touching the White House and the president himself.

President Donald Trump’s legal defence team is floating a new strategy as the Russia investigation reaches a critical point: calling for a second special counsel tasked with investigating perceived anti-Trump bias and conflicts of interest within the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Axios reported that the move was prompted by a Fox News article which said that senior DOJ official Bruce Ohr’s wife worked during the 2016 election for Fusion GPS – the firm that produced the Steele dossier, an explosive collection of memos detailing Trump’s alleged Russia ties. Ohr was demoted last week for failing to disclose that he met with some individuals who were behind the dossier’s production.

“The Department of Justice and FBI cannot ignore the multiple problems that have been created by these obvious conflicts of interests. These revelations require the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal defence lawyers, told Axios.

It’s unclear whether the president’s defence lawyers – White House lawyer Ty Cobb and personal defence attorneys Sekulow and John Dowd – want the DOJ, the FBI, both, or specific individuals within the agencies to be investigated.

Cobb did not respond to a request for comment. Dowd replied “yes” when asked whether he believed a second special counsel should be appointed and directed all other questions to Sekulow. Sekulow referred to his original statement to Axios and did not respond to follow-up questions.

The obstruction question takes center stage

Trump’s legal team’s new course of action in the Russia probe comes on the heels of multiple reports indicating that special counsel Robert Mueller is drilling down on one of the main threads in the Russia investigation: whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May.

NBC News reported Monday that investigators are focused on the 18-day period between when the White House was first warned that national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, and when he was forced to resign. A Washington Post report on Tuesday said lawyers for other witnesses in the Russia probe told Cobb that prosecutors asked “detailed questions” about Comey’s firing, which led them to believe Mueller is focusing on gathering evidence around the obstruction question.

Comey was overseeing the Russia investigation when he was dismissed, and his abrupt firing came three months after a private Oval Office meeting in which Trump asked him to consider “letting” Flynn “go.” Flynn was forced to resign after it emerged that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the transition period. Comey gave no indication that he would consider Trump’s request.

Flynn pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak during a January interview, and Trump invited scrutiny the next day when he sent out a tweet suggesting he knew Flynn had misled the FBI at the time of his firing. If Trump knew Flynn had committed a federal crime when he asked Comey to “let go” of the bureau’s investigation, it would dramatically bolster the obstruction case against him.

Former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer said Tuesday that the president’s defence team’s calls for a second special counsel seem less like a legal strategy and more like a public-relations stunt.

Trump and his defenders have also latched onto a string of damaging reports in recent days as evidence of bias either within Mueller’s team or the DOJ as a whole.

The Washington Post reported that Peter Strzok, an FBI counterintelligence veteran who worked with Mueller on the Russia investigation, was ousted in July because he exchanged texts with a colleague at the FBI that could have shown a perceived anti-Trump bias.

Andrew Weissman, a seasoned prosecutor on Mueller’s team who specialises in “flipping” witnesses, was also roped into the controversy when the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch released an email last week in which Weissman praised former acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to defend Trump’s initial travel ban in January. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Weissman attended Clinton’s election night party in New York last year.

Republican lawmakers also urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November to appoint a special counsel tasked with investigating “matters which may be outside the scope” of Mueller’s probe. Of particular concern to them were the 2010 Uranium One deal and the Clinton Foundation, as well as actions taken by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Comey, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

‘It’s getting close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’

Cramer said claims of bias and calls for a second special counsel were “political noise.”

“While you can look at that and say, ‘Everything is tainted,’ I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. Though it’s important to examine whether there’s any sort of bias in an investigation, he added, “just scratching the surface a little reveals that none of these allegations of bias touch upon the credibility of Mueller’s probe.”

“You have to look at the evidence, because the facts are the facts,” Cramer said.

Individual revelations about investigators’ political views, he said, are “distinct” from the fact that “Flynn lied to the FBI. So while it’s unfortunate there are these distractions, it doesn’t impact the evidence … and the call for any sort of investigation of the FBI or DOJ is a cynical distraction and a lazy man’s excuse.”

The special counsel’s office has so far charged four individuals in Trump’s orbit as part of the Russia investigation: Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign adviser and Manafort associate Rick Gates, and early foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

Paul ManafortElsa/Getty ImagesFormer Donald Trump presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort looks on during Game Four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 17, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

As Mueller and his investigators move forward, Trump’s defence team, led by Cobb, has largely signalled a willingness to cooperate with Mueller and in the hope for a speedy and swift conclusion.

Cobb has also reportedly been successful at convincing Trump the investigation will wrap up soon: first, he said it would end by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas, and later by early next year. Legal experts dispute that timeline, saying it will likely take much longer for an investigation of this size and scope to end.

Trump’s lawyers’ calls for a second special counsel, according to Axios, are not related to Mueller as much as to perceived bias in the FBI and DOJ as a whole.

But the timing of the strategy indicates that the president’s defence team is aware that the investigation may soon touch the White House and Trump himself.

“We didn’t hear this when Papadopoulos or Manafort were indicted,” Cramer said. “We only hear it now because it’s getting close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that’s why they’re working to discredit investigators.”

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