Amid increasing Republican attacks on Robert S. Mueller III over the scope and impartiality of his investigation of Russian campaign meddling, President Trump denied on Sunday that he had any intention of firing the special counsel.
"No — no, I'm not," Trump said on Sunday as he returned to the White House from Camp David, when reporters asked if he was considering ousting Mueller, as some conservatives have urged.
Earlier, the White House sought to tamp down speculation Trump would move directly against the special counsel, even as a senior Cabinet official noted the president had the authority to remove Mueller if he wished.
The president spoke as a new contretemps flared over the disclosure Saturday that the Mueller team possesses tens of thousands of emails from the Trump transition team, causing perhaps the most tense moment in the investigation since Mueller's appointment in May. He was named soon after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been overseeing the probe since mid-2016.
A lawyer for Trump on Saturday wrote to Congress accusing Mueller of having illegally obtained the transition emails and other records. That drew a rare public response from the special counsel's spokesman, who said any emails were either obtained by "the account owner's consent or appropriate criminal process."
Asked about the emails in Mueller's possession, Trump said, "It's quite sad to see that. My people are very upset about it. I can't imagine there's anything on 'em, frankly, because as we said, there's no collusion" with Russia.
On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin repeated a frequent complaint of Trump and his supporters, suggesting that the probe had dragged on too long. "We've got to get past this investigation — it's a giant distraction," Mnuchin said on CNN's "State of the Union."
In another echo of the president, Mnuchin said "nobody has said" that Russian actions "impacted the outcome of the election." The U.S. intelligence community unanimously assessed that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign to assist Trump, but did not attempt to draw conclusions as to the impact on the result.
Mnuchin, who dined with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday evening at Camp David, said hours before Trump's remarks that he knew of no move afoot to fire Mueller. "I don't have any reason to think the president is going to do that," he said. "But that's obviously up to him."
The White House legislative director, Marc Short, also pushed back against the notion of firing Mueller. "We have continued to cooperate in every single stage of that investigation," Short said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But like Mnuchin, he suggested that it was in the public interest for Mueller to wrap things up quickly. "Taxpayers have spent millions and millions of dollars on this investigation" without collusion having been proven, Short said. The special counsel has announced no such determination about possible Trump campaign complicity.
Trump has reportedly expressed hopes privately that the investigation would be over by year's end, a prospect that appears unlikely.
Democrats, along with some Republicans, have signaled strong support for Mueller. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), also appearing on "Meet the Press," said Mueller has "not at all been compromised." The special counsel, he said, was "beyond reproach."
As Mueller has come under growing assault from Republicans who charge that his investigation is tainted by partisanship, they have seized on the disclosure that an FBI agent who worked on Mueller's team exchanged text messages with a colleague in 2015 disparaging Trump.
The agent, Peter Strzok, was removed over the summer, after Mueller learned of the texts.
The Strzok texts have been the subject of frenzied coverage in conservative media. Even some Republicans who say they have faith in Mueller's integrity have joined in calls for examination of potential bias.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, said on ABC's "This Week" that Mueller acted correctly in removing the agent from his team, but said "there are others" whose personal opinions might have a bearing on the probe.
Mueller, a lifelong Republican, initially was praised even by Trump allies like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But after Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted in October, Gingrich called Mueller an "out-of-control prosecutor."
Such attacks have picked up as the probe seemed to draw closer to Trump's innermost circle, especially after the guilty plea of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who is cooperating with investigators. Trump has mused publicly about pardoning Flynn. "We'll see what happens," he said Friday.
The latest flareup was ignited when news reports on Saturday said Mueller's team has tens of thousands of emails from the Trump transition team, including messages from Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House advisor.
Legal experts have sharply questioned the claim by Kory Langhofer, a lawyer for the transition team, that the emails were protected by executive privilege and had been improperly obtained.
Trump, who has continued to call claims of Russian election interference a "hoax," has recently mounted intensifying attacks on the FBI.
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to pursue a warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Sunday, the Kremlin made an unusual public revelation that the United States had shared intelligence that had helped foil a terrorist plot in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg.
Putin called Trump to thank him for the CIA's help in nabbing a ring linked to the Islamic State group, Russia's Tass news agency reported. The White House later said that Trump had then called CIA Director Mike Pompeo to congratulate "the entire intelligence community on a job well done!"
Sunday's call marked Trump and Putin's second conversation in four days. Trump called Putin on Thursday to thank him for praising the strong performance of the U.S. stock market and attributing it to Trump.