Trump escalates attacks on Mueller probe

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE on Wednesday called on Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump vows to get rid of 'stench' at DOJ, FBI NY Times, McCabe give Trump perfect cover to fire Rosenstein, Sessions House Judiciary on NY Times article: I intend to subpoena 'McCabe Memos' MORE to immediately stop the Russia investigation, a significant escalation of Trump's attacks against the long-running probe that has dogged his presidency.

The remark was Trump's most direct public appeal yet to end special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's investigation, which he has blasted for months. It also raised questions from legal experts about whether the president was attempting to obstruct justice.

In a series of morning tweets, Trump called the investigation a “terrible situation” that must be stopped “before it continues to stain our country any further.”

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“Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now," Trump wrote.

The president declared that the notion his campaign conspired with Russia in its effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election is a “TOTAL HOAX." He also made the unsubstantiated claim that Mueller, a Republican appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Rosenstein: 'I never pursued' trying to record Trump Trump vows to get rid of 'stench' at DOJ, FBI MORE, the No. 2 Justice Department official, is "totally conflicted" and unable to carry out a fair investigation.

The tweets come at a pivotal time in the Russia probe, when Mueller is reportedly examining whether Trump's previous tweets about Sessions and former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyTrump vows to get rid of 'stench' at DOJ, FBI House Judiciary on NY Times article: I intend to subpoena 'McCabe Memos' Hillicon Valley: NYT says Rosenstein wanted to wear wire on Trump | Twitter bug shared some private messages | Vendor put remote-access software on voting machines | Paypal cuts ties with Infowars | Google warned senators about foreign hacks MORE were meant to obstruct the investigation.

“Tweets like this one directing the Attorney General to stop the investigation of Trump and his friends are among the many reasons why Mueller will conclude Trump obstructed justice,” former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Renato Mariotti argued in a tweet.

The White House and Trump's legal team raced to contain the fallout over the president's comments on Wednesday, saying Trump was merely venting his frustration with the special counsel probe and not giving an order to Sessions to end the investigation.

“It's an opinion. And he used a medium that he uses for opinions: Twitter. He used the word ‘should.’ He didn't use the word ‘must.’ And there was no presidential directive that followed,” Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told reporters in New Hampshire.

That message was echoed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during her briefing with reporters.

“It’s not an order, it’s the president’s opinion,” Sanders said. “The president has watched this process play out, but also wants to see this come to an end.”

Trump's comments Wednesday caused a stir on Capitol Hill, where Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the Mueller probe should be allowed to continue unimpeded.

“I think it's highly inappropriate and intemperate,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGrassley panel scraps Kavanaugh hearing, warns committee will vote without deal Collins 'appalled' by Trump tweet about Kavanaugh accuser Poll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it MORE (R-Maine), who exited an elevator to answer reporters' questions about the tweet. “It would be far better if the president just refrained from commenting and Mr. Mueller proceeds with his investigation.”

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly Russia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems Trump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a vocal Trump critic, called the tweets "an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight."

“America must never accept it,” he tweeted.

Several Republicans expressed confidence, however, that Trump would not move to bring the investigation to a premature end.

“I think that's an academic question,” Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said when asked if he believes Trump will fire Mueller. “I think the president is way too intelligent to fire Mueller and I don't think [Attorney] General Sessions can because he recused himself.”

Past presidents have generally refrained from weighing in on active federal investigations, but Trump has broken that norm repeatedly by denouncing the Russia probe.

Sessions has long been the target of Trump's ire over his recusal from Russia-related matters last year. Sessions's recusal left his deputy, Rosenstein, as the top Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe, and Rosenstein appointed Mueller after Trump fired Comey. 

The attorney general recused himself in March 2017 to avoid conflicts related to his service as a key Trump campaign adviser. The decision came after it was revealed Sessions failed to disclose contacts with Russia’s U.S. ambassador during the campaign.

Trump has said he would have nominated another person as attorney general if he had known Sessions would recuse himself, but previously has not gone as far as calling on Sessions to end the probe.

The Justice Department declined to comment on Wednesday.

The president's latest barrage of criticism came on the second day of the trial of his former campaign chairman, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFormer White House lawyer sought to pay Manafort, Gates legal fees: report Mueller investigating Russian payments made by Trump Tower meeting organizers: report Cohen questioned for hours in Mueller probe about Trump's dealings with Russia: report MORE, who is accused of committing tax, financial and bank fraud crimes while working for the pro-Russian former leader of Ukraine.

Manafort is the first Trump associate to go on trial in the Mueller probe, an event that has consumed a major amount of media coverage — to Trump's apparent frustration.

The president sought to distance himself from Manafort early Wednesday, saying in another tweet that Manafort only “worked for me for a very short time” and suggested federal authorities should have informed him his campaign chief was under investigation during the 2016 presidential race.

“Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion — a Hoax!” Trump tweeted.

Trump later questioned whether federal officials were treating Manafort worse than Mafia boss Al Capone, who served 11 years in prison after being convicted of tax evasion.

Capone was suspected of being involved in dozens of murders but he was never tried or convicted for them.

For months, the president has kept up a sustained attack on the Mueller investigation in an attempt to undermine it in the eyes of the public.

He repeated those complaints during his Wednesday morning tweets, sharing quotes from attorney Alan Dershowitz, a critic of the probe, and blasting FBI agent Peter Strzok for having been “out to STOP THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP.”

Strzok was removed from the Mueller probe last year after the special counsel was made aware of anti-Trump texts that the agent sent to a colleague, Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair. 

Jordain Carney and Morgan Chalfant contributed.