According to The New York Times, President Trump has asked at least two witnesses what they discussed with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators, ignoring his lawyers' advice not to discuss the Russia investigation so as not to create the appearance of obstruction of justice or witness tampering.
In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed, the people said.
In the other episode, Mr. Trump asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview had gone with the special counsel’s investigators and whether they had been “nice,” according to two people familiar with the discussion.
Legal experts said Mr. Trump’s contact with the men most likely did not rise to the level of witnesses tampering. But witnesses and lawyers who learned about the conversations viewed them as potentially a problem and shared them with Mr. Mueller.
President Trump's lawyers still are negotiating the terms of a possible interview with Mueller, who already is investigating whether the president attempted to obstruct justice by firing FBI Director James Comey.
The experts said the meetings with Mr. McGahn and Mr. Priebus would probably sharpen Mr. Mueller’s focus on the president’s interactions with other witnesses. The special counsel has questioned witnesses recently about their interactions with the president since the investigation began. The experts also said the episodes could serve as evidence for Mr. Mueller in an obstruction case.
“It makes it look like you’re cooking a story, and prosecutors are always looking out for it,” said Julie R. O’Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University and expert on white-collar criminal investigations.
Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. McGahn unfolded in the days after the Jan. 25 Times article, which said that Mr. McGahn threatened to quit last June after the president asked him to fire the special counsel. After the article was published, the White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, told Mr. McGahn that the president wanted him to release a statement saying that the story was not true, the people said.
Mr. Porter, who resigned last month amid a domestic abuse scandal, told Mr. McGahn the president had suggested he might “get rid of” Mr. McGahn if he chose not to challenge the article, the people briefed on the conversation said.
Mr. McGahn did not publicly deny the article, and the president later confronted him in the Oval Office in front of the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, according to the people.
The president said he had never ordered Mr. McGahn to fire the special counsel. Mr. McGahn replied that the president was wrong and that he had in fact asked Mr. McGahn in June to call the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to tell him that the special counsel had a series of conflicts that disqualified him for overseeing the investigation and that he had to be dismissed. The president told Mr. McGahn that he did not remember the discussion that way.
Mr. Trump moved on, pointing out that Mr. McGahn had never told him that he was going to resign over the order to fire the special counsel. Mr. McGahn acknowledged that that was true but said that he had told senior White House officials at the time that he was going to quit.
Mr. Priebus met with the president in the West Wing in December, according to the people with knowledge of their encounter. Allies of Mr. Priebus, who was fired by Mr. Trump in July, have cautioned him to keep his distance. But Mr. Priebus, who is seeking to build a law practice as a Washington power broker who can open doors for clients, has maintained contact and occasionally visited the White House to see Mr. Trump and his own replacement, Mr. Kelly.
Mr. Trump brought up Mr. Priebus’s October interview with the special counsel’s office, the people said, and Mr. Priebus replied that the investigators were courteous and professional. He shared no specifics and did not say what he had told investigators, and the conversation moved on after a few minutes, those briefed on it said. Mr. Kelly was present for that conversation as well, and it was not clear whether he tried to stop the discussion.
It is not illegal for the subject of an investigation to learn what witnesses have told investigators. But that is usually done through lawyers for the people involved because their communications are often shielded from prosecutors because of attorney-client privilege. In organized crime and complex white-collar investigations, prosecutors often ask witnesses whether they have spoken to the person under investigation to determine whether they are coordinating their stories.