Trump: attorney general should end Russia probe 'right now'

WASHINGTON, Aug 1 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should end a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, drawing a rebuke from both Democrats and his fellow Republicans in Congress.

The Republican president has long complained about the criminal probe into his White House victory but Wednesday's comment appeared to be his most direct call for shutting down Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

In a series of tweets, Trump called it a "TOTAL HOAX" the idea his campaign worked with Moscow. "This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further," he said.

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Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions
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Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) joins President Donald Trump (L) for an opioid and drug abuse listening session at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions as they attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions speaks next to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Alabama February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
U.S. President Donald Trump watches as Vice President Mike Pence (R) swears in Jeff Sessions (L) as U.S. Attorney General while his wife Mary Sessions holds the Bible in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 28: Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, endorses Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee for president during a campaign rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Ala., February 28, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. President Donald Trump congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney General as his wife Mary Sessions looks on during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) and retired U.S. Army General Keith Kellogg (R) during a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for new Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Under a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson, U.S. President Donald Trump (L) congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney General during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump reaches out toward Attorney General Jeff Sessions as they attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
US President-elect Donald Trump (C) talks with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (2nd L) and US Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (L) as he arrives in Mobile, Alabama, for a 'Thank You Tour 2016' rally on December 17, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
MOBILE, AL - DECEMBER 17: President-elect Donald Trump greets Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's picks for attorney general, during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump watches as Vice President Mike Pence (R) swears in Jeff Sessions (L) as U.S. Attorney General while his wife Mary Sessions holds the Bible in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
MOBILE, AL- AUGUST 21: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R) Mobile during his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on August 21, 2015 in Mobile, Alabama. The Donald Trump campaign moved tonight's rally to a larger stadium to accommodate demand. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney General as his wife Mary Sessions looks on during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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The White House said the tweet was not an order to Sessions and that Trump was expressing his frustration with the length of the probe.

Trump also said that Mueller is "totally conflicted." He provided no evidence that the team led by Mueller, a Republican who was appointed by a Republican, is biased against him.

The first trial arising from the probe into Russia's role in the election, began on Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia. Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, faces 18 counts of bank and tax fraud charges.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the department had no immediate comment on Trump's tweet about ending Mueller's probe.

"It's not an order. It's the president's opinion," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told a news briefing when asked about the tweet. She denied that Trump was obstructing the probe. "He's fighting back," she said.

Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said that in his tweet Trump was expressing an opinion long espoused by his team.

"We have been saying for months that it is time to bring this inquiry to an end. The president has expressed the same opinion," Giuliani told Reuters.

Trump has steadily attacked Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe in March 2017. Sessions cited his role as a senior adviser to Trump's presidential campaign and appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to oversee the investigation.

Rosenstein in turn appointed Mueller and is the person with the authority to fire him.

Mueller, a Republican and former FBI director who served a Republican and Democratic president, has broad support in Congress, where Trump's fellow Republicans control both chambers.

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People reportedly interviewed in Robert Mueller's Russia probe
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People reportedly interviewed in Robert Mueller's Russia probe

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions 

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former FBI Director James Comey

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

White House Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump advisor Stephen Miller

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

President Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner 

(bBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Don McGahn, general counsel for the Trump transition team

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who compiled the reported Trump dossier 

(Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sam Clovis, a former member of the Trump campaign

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

CIA Director Mike Pompeo
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Six Republican senators going into a vote on Wednesday disapproved of Trump's tweet calling for an end to the probe.

"They ought to let them conclude their work. What they’re doing is something that is important and we support and I don’t think any effort to truncate that or somehow shut it down early is in the public’s best interest," said Senator John Thune, a junior member of the Senate's Republican leadership.

Senator Orrin Hatch said he did not think Sessions had the power to end the probe and it would be unwise to do so.

An element of Mueller's investigation includes whether Trump or anyone in the campaign tried to obstruct justice. The New York Times reported last week that the Mueller team was examining negative tweets and statements by Trump about Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey. Trump fired Comey in May 2017.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign to try to tip the vote in Trump's favor. Moscow has denied such interference, and Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign or any obstruction of justice.

'HE'S PANICKING'

Democratic lawmakers said the tweet was an effort by Trump to end the probe.

"It's clear to me he's very worried about it and he wants to prevent it any way he can," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

"He's panicking," Democratic Representative Don Beyer said on Twitter. "Congress must protect Mueller."

In April, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation to protect Mueller but Republican leader Mitch McConnell said there was no need to advance the bill because he did not believe Trump would fire Mueller.

Some legal analysts said Wednesday's tweet alone was not enough to bring an obstruction of justice charge but it could be used to establish a pattern of conduct revealing Trump's intentions.

"It is a piece of evidence. It is part and parcel with the other 94 things the man has done that show obstruction of justice," said Paul Rosenzweig, a former prosecutor who was part of a team that investigated President Bill Clinton. "But it is probably number 67, or number 72, on that list."

Jens David Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University, said the tweets would likely not be seen as an order to Sessions, but as "Trump venting his continued frustration with the fact that he can't control the Russia investigation."

"But I do think it would be a piece of evidence in the obstruction case going back to the firing of Comey because it shows Trump has this intense desire to shut down the Russia investigation," he said.

Mueller's team has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies, including the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld, Jan Wolfe and Susan Heavey Editing by Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)

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