As special counsel Robert Mueller wraps up his Russia probe, investigators have focused on conflicting public statements by President Donald Trump and his team that could be seen as an effort to influence witnesses and obstruct justice, according to people familiar with the investigation.The line of questioning adds to indications that Mueller views false or misleading statements to the press or to the public as obstruction of justice. That could set up a potential flashpoint with the White House and the Trump legal team should that become part of any final report from the Mueller investigation.Mueller hasn’t addressed the issue publicly, but prosecutors have dropped hints that they view public statements as possibly key in influencing witnesses.Court filings from the plea of Michael Cohen, the President’s former personal lawyer, included allegations related to false public statements — not usually considered illegal since they aren’t made directly to investigators. A December sentencing memo filed by Mueller’s office notes that Cohen’s lies were amplified in public statements, “including to other potential witnesses.” The memo said this was done partly “in the hopes of limiting the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election — an issue of heightened national interest.”The President’s legal team took notice of the Cohen plea documents and believe the special counsel is pursuing a thin legal theory when it comes to potentially criminalizing public statements, a source briefed on the matter said. They believe the President’s comments are protected under the First Amendment and that there’s a difference between a plea deal and the President’s position, which is to fight the allegations.Whenever Mueller’s investigation concludes, the moment is expected to mark the beginning of a new political and legal fight over the probe’s findings.One of those key areas of dispute likely will center on obstruction of justice allegations, which the President’s legal team has considered off-limits because they argue it pertains to matters covered under executive privilege. When Trump responded to written questions from Mueller before Thanksgiving, the President’s lawyers refused to respond to any questions on obstruction.While Mueller is widely expected to not try to bring charges against the President, following long-standing Justice Department legal guidelines, investigators could try to weave into their report examples of how the President used public statements to try to obstruct the investigation. The Mueller team’s questioning also shows their interest in obstruction extends beyond the President’s firing of FBI Director James ComeyOne witness who worked closely with Trump told #CNN that, based on the questions asked, it is clear Mueller is looking at the President’s “changing stories” as a way to possibly show corrupt intent in the obstruction probe.Prosecutors appear to be examining the President’s public statements as well to determine whether there’s an effort to try to influence other witnesses and cause other administration and former campaign officials to make false public statements.That includes the President’s role in crafting the misleading Air Force One statement in the summer of 2017 on the now infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians attended by Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.Another episode centers on Trump’s attempt to have his then-White House counsel Don McGahn disavow articles reporting that McGahn threatened to quit over Trump’s pressure to fire Mueller, according to one source familiar with the matter. McGahn refused to publicly say that the stories were false, which prompted more anger from the President.The President publicly has said he wouldn’t fire Mueller and hadn’t thought about it, which other witnesses have told Mueller’s investigators isn’t true.
A fight over who will see Mueller’s reportMeanwhile, as clues mount that Mueller is ending his multi-year investigation in the coming weeks, new political and legal fights are emerging over who will actually be able to read his findings.It’s a battle the White House and Congress are already preparing for to determine if any of the report Mueller produces goes to Congress or any part of it becomes public.President Donald Trump wouldn’t indicate Thursday whether he wants Mueller’s final report to be made public, saying to reporters, “We’ll have to see.”But behind the scenes at the White House, an intense effort is underway to keep a lot of what Mueller submits private. The new White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, has been beefing up his staff to deal with this fight, hiring 17 new lawyers including three deputy counsels, a senior administration official said. More could be hired.