Trump escalates attacks on Mueller probe

President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE on Wednesday called on Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases 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 (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week 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 ComeyBiden sister has book deal, set to publish in April Mystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom 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 CollinsTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands 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 SchiffOfficers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work 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 ManafortLobbyist Tony Podesta returns to work for Huawei Former bank CEO convicted of bribery in scheme to land Trump admin job Trial begins for Chicago banker who exchanged loans with Manafort for Trump job 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.