Multiple Trump officials pressed Sessions not to recuse self from Russia probe

Image: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions holds a news conference to discuss "efforts to reduce violent crime" at the Department of Justice in Washington
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference to discuss "efforts to reduce violent crime" at the Department of Justice in Washington on Dec. 15, 2017.JOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's counsel and multiple other White House officials tried to talk Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of recusing himself from the Russia investigation, a senior U.S. official told NBC News, amid reports the effort was orchestrated by Trump himself.

In the weeks before Sessions recused himself from the probe in March, White House Counsel Don McGahn and other White House officials called him and urged him not to disqualify himself from running the probe, the senior official said.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Trump ordered McGahn to prevent Sessions from recusing himself, because Trump wanted an attorney general who could protect him from what he viewed as an improper inquiry.

After Sessions recused himself, Trump reacted with fury, the Times reported. NBC News has not confirmed that aspect of the story.

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The Times added that special counsel Robert Mueller had become aware of Trump's order to McGahn, and that it is one a series of incidents he is probing as part of his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice.

The Washington Post and The Associated Press also reported that Trump ordered McGahn to talk Sessions out of recusing himself.

But Sessions took the advice of Justice Department professionals, who told him recusal was warranted, the U.S. official said. Before the recusal, Sessions had been criticized over his failure to disclose interactions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., which had become a factor in the investigation into Russian election meddling. He said he recused himself because he had been a key adviser to the Trump campaign, which is a party to the investigation.

At issue was Sessions' failure to disclose interactions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., which had

A White House lawyer for Trump, Ty Cobb, said he had no comment.

The Times reported that the lobbying of Sessions was one of several previously unreported episodes that Mueller has learned of as part of his obstruction of justice inquiry.

The newspaper said Trump described the Russia investigation as "fabricated and politically motivated" in a letter that he intended to send to then-FBI Director James Comey, but that White House aides stopped him from sending.

And the Times said Mueller has substantiated claims that Comey made in a series of memos describing troubling interactions with the president before he was fired in May. He did so by reviewing handwritten notes by former chief of staff Reince Priebus, the paper said.

Trump has said publicly that he disagreed with Sessions' decision to remove himself from the Russia matter.

"He should not have recused himself from the Russia investigation almost immediately after he took office, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have quite simply picked somebody else," Trump said at a news conference on July 25. "It's not fair to the presidency."

After Sessions recused himself, his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, took over the investigation. After Trump fired Comey two months later, Rosenstein appointed Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel to lead the Russia probe.