WASHINGTON — President Trump gave firm instructions in March to the White House’s top lawyer: stop the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, from recusing himself in the Justice Department’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump’s associates had helped a Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election.
Public pressure was building for Mr. Sessions, who had been a senior member of the Trump campaign, to step aside. But the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, carried out the president’s orders and lobbied Mr. Sessions to remain in charge of the inquiry, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.
Mr. McGahn was unsuccessful, and the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He was referring to his former personal lawyer and fixer, who had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986.
The lobbying of Mr. Sessions is one of several previously unreported episodes that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has learned about as he investigates whether Mr. Trump obstructed the F.B.I.’s Russia inquiry. The events occurred during a two-month period — from when Mr. Sessions recused himself in March until the appointment of Mr. Mueller in May — when Mr. Trump believed he was losing control over the investigation.
Among the other episodes, Mr. Trump described the Russia investigation as “fabricated and politically motivated” in a letter that he intended to send to the F.B.I. director at the time, James B. Comey, but that White House aides stopped him from sending. Mr. Mueller has also substantiated claims that Mr. Comey made in a series of memos describing troubling interactions with the president before he was fired in May.
The special counsel has received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, showing that Mr. Trump talked to Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation. The president’s determination to fire Mr. Comey even led one White House lawyer to take the extraordinary step of misleading Mr. Trump about whether he had the authority to remove him.
The New York Times has also learned that four days before Mr. Comey was fired, one of Mr. Sessions’s aides asked a congressional staff member whether he had damaging information about Mr. Comey, part of an apparent effort to undermine the F.B.I. director. It was not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators knew about this episode.