Rosenstein on “shaky ground” because Trump wants constraints on Mueller probe

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By Karen Freifeld

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The prospect of an interview of U.S. President Donald Trump by special counsel Robert Mueller has been derailed by the recent FBI raids on Trump’s personal lawyer, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Trump’s anger over the warrants to search the home and office of lawyer Michael Cohen has made the interview far less likely, one of the people said on Thursday.

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That outlook somewhat contradicted Trump’s Twitter message on Thursday morning that he backed a “cooperative” approach to Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s presidential campaign.

“I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller,” Trump said on Twitter.

A third source familiar with the matter said the relationship with Mueller remains strong and constructive discussions are expected to recommence shortly.

Russia denies U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that it interfered in the campaign to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor. Trump has denied any collusion and has repeatedly attacked Mueller’s investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

Trump’s irritation erupted this week after the FBI raids targeting Cohen, which followed a referral by Mueller. Trump’s outburst raised concerns among critics and lawmakers, including some in Trump’s own Republican Party, that he might try to have Mueller removed.

The president denied a New York Times report on Tuesday that he had sought to fire Mueller in December. “If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him,” he said on Twitter early on Thursday.

White House lawyers Ty Cobb and Donald McGahn have told Trump that firing Mueller would leave him vulnerable to charges of obstruction of justice, two officials told Reuters on Tuesday. They said Trump must have “good cause” to order the Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to oust Mueller.

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One of the sources familiar with the matter and another person said on Thursday that Rosenstein is now on shaky ground. The second person said the feeling among both White House and Justice Department officials is that Rosenstein is abdicating authority and not putting constraints on the investigation.

Rosenstein was at the White House on Thursday discussing the status of congressional requests, another of the sources said.

Steve Bannon, a former senior adviser to Trump, has encouraged White House aides to advise Trump to fire Rosenstein, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing unidentified sources. It also said Bannon wanted the White House to stop cooperating with the Mueller investigation and fire Cobb.

Cobb, the lawyer in charge of the White House response to the Russia investigation, has stressed cooperation with Mueller. The White House has said it has turned over tens of thousands of pages of documents to the special counsel’s team.

Trump said in one of his Twitter messages on Thursday that he had full confidence in Cobb.

A bipartisan group of senators put forward legislation on Wednesday to protect Mueller and his investigation, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider next week.

“Anyone advising the President – in public or over the airwaves – to fire Bob Mueller does not have the President or the nation’s best interest at heart. Full stop,” Republican Senator Orrin Hatch wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Makini Brice and John Walcott; Writing by Tim Ahmann and Karen Freifeld; Editing by Frances Kerry and Leslie Adler)