Republicans, Democrats focus on different targets related to Russia probe
Spy Christopher Steele, White House counsel Don McGahn and even Jeff Sessions are in the crosshairs
A top House Democrat called for the immediate dismissal of White House lawyer Don McGahn on Friday after a report that President Donald Trump asked McGahn to urge Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian election meddling.
U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler said the incident, reported in the New York Times, was a clear effort to obstruct the Russia probe, and he expected McGahn to volunteer to testify before the judiciary committee.
But in the senior chamber of Congress, two long-serving senators said Friday they have made the first known criminal referral in their congressional investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. They're targeting the author of a dossier of allegations about Trump's ties to Russia, Christopher Steele.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate's judiciary committee, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham say they've referred the case of the former British spy to the Justice Department for investigation about false statements he may have made about "the distribution of claims contained in the dossier."
Lawmakers cannot prosecute criminal activity. But they generally refer any criminal violations they find to the Justice Department. The senators say part of the referral is classified.
The dossier was compiled during the election campaign and contains allegations about Trump's ties to Russia. It was partially paid for by Democrats.
The congressional probes are separate from the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, which has so far led to charges for four people, including Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn.
White House lawyer's actions scrutinized
The Times report said Trump directed McGahn to stop Sessions, who was a chief adviser in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, from removing himself from a Justice Department probe into whether the campaign worked with Russians to sway the 2016 election.
McGahn failed to persuade Sessions to remain involved and Trump erupted in anger in front of a number of White House officials, saying the attorney general needed to protect him, according to the Times, which cited two people with knowledge of the episode.
Sessions announced on March 2 that he would recuse himself from the Russia probe. The recusal followed the revelation that he had had two previously undisclosed interactions during the 2016 campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States; at his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing, he had said he had had no meetings with Russians.
Nadler, the top Democrat on the House judiciary committee, said the attorney general's job was to uphold the law, including rules on conflict of interest.
"Either Mr. McGahn knows this and decided to interfere with the Russia investigation anyway, or he doesn't," Nadler said in a statement. "Neither case is acceptable and he should be removed from his post immediately."
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal urged lawmakers on Friday to support legislation protecting the special counsel, citing the Times report. "Explosive evidence of obstruction — and imminent danger to special counsel. White House staff need to testify before grand jury," Blumenthal wrote on Twitter.
Reached Thursday evening by The Associated Press, Trump's personal attorney John Dowd said, "I know nothing about that," and hung up. Jay Sekulow, another of the president's personal lawyers, did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Republicans want Sessions out
Two months after Sessions recused himself, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. A week later, on May 17, the Justice Department under the auspices of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to lead the investigation into possible collusion and whether Trump tried to obstruct the FBI's Russian inquiry.
Republicans have attacked Mueller's probe as politically motivated, prompting concerns among Democrats that Trump would fire him.
The Sessions recusal has been a sore spot for Trump for months, with the president publicly deriding the decision and lamenting his selection of the former Alabama senator as his attorney general.
In an op-ed published Thursday in the conservative Washington Examiner, Republican congressmen Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows wrote, "If Sessions can't address this issue immediately, then we have one final question needing an answer: When is it time for a new attorney general? Sadly, it seems the answer is now."
Blumenthal called on Republican colleagues to "join the outcry against Trump's threats to fire [Sessions]."
No personal henchman (Roy Cohn) for Donald Trump - the US Attorney General works for the American people. Republican colleagues must join our outcry against Trump’s threats to fire AG or Special Counsel after latest explosive obstruction evidence.—@SenBlumenthal
With files from CBC News and The Associated Press