Top Democrats investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election say they believe recent developments — including Friday’s guilty plea by former national security adviser Michael Flynn — suggest that special counsel Robert Mueller is building an obstruction of justice case that could implicate President Donald Trump.
“What we’re beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Mueller, who is investigating possible crimes by Americans in relation to Russia’s election meddling, has given few clues about where he plans to take his investigation. But Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Flynn’s guilty plea — in which he admitted to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials weeks before Trump’s inauguration — a separate guilty plea by a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser and the indictment of Trump’s former campaign chairman all appeared geared toward an obstruction inquiry.
Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein shortly after Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May, and Comey testified a month later that Trump had pressured him to back off an investigation of Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials in the weeks leading up to inauguration. Democrats have long said Trump fired Comey to impede the Russia probe, which they say amounts to obstructing justice.
“It is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation,” Feinstein said. “That’s obstruction of justice.” Feinstein said her own panel, chaired by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). was exploring the issue as well.
Flynn’s decision to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about those contacts — and his suggestion that other Trump aides were aware of his discussions with Russian government officials — raised new questions about what the president and his inner circle knew about Flynn’s conduct at the time.
Flynn admitted that in December 2016, he discussed with Russia’s ambassador to the United States sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. Russia declined to retaliate for the sanctions, a move that Trump later praised on Twitter as “very smart.”
Trump has vehemently denied telling Comey to drop the Flynn investigation and spent Sunday morning slamming the FBI and questioning whether it had become too politicized.
“After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters — worst in History!” he tweeted. He also retweeted a commentator calling for Comey’s successor at the FBI, Chris Wray, to “clean house.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told ABC’s “This Week” that Flynn might tell investigators that others in Trump’s inner circle — or even the president himself — ordered conversations with the Russians meant to undermine the Obama administration’s sanctions.
“The more that he was involved in directing this, in being knowledgeable of it, the stronger the case of potential obstruction becomes,” Schiff said of the president.
Republicans largely refrained from public comments Sunday about the developments in the Russia investigations. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the only GOP intelligence committee member to appear on the Sunday national news shows, said Mueller’s is the inquiry to watch because Flynn already asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying to Congress.
“Now, really, the special counsel is in the driver’s seat,” Collins said on “Meet the Press.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate judiciary committee, declined to weigh in on the prospect of obstruction and instead said he’s primarily concerned about allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“If there was coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, I can’t think of a person who would know more about that than Flynn,” he said.
Asked about the prospect that Trump’s decision to fire Comey could amount to obstruction of justice, Sen Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said answers are likely to come from Mueller.
“That’s why I think you’re going to see much more coming from the special prosecutor,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”