The request was one of the most blatant examples yet of how President Donald Trump views the typically independent Justice Department as a tool to be wielded against political enemies.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told the White House counsel in the spring that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute two political adversaries: his 2016 Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and former FBI Director James Comey, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
The lawyer, Donald McGahn, rebuffed the president, saying he had no authority to order a prosecution. McGahn said that while he could request an investigation, that, too, could prompt accusations of abuse of power. To illustrate his point, McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Trump warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment.
The request was one of the most blatant examples yet of how Trump views the typically independent Justice Department as a tool to be wielded against political enemies. It took on additional significance in recent weeks when McGahn left the White House and Trump appointed a relatively inexperienced political loyalist, Matthew Whitaker, as the acting attorney general.
Trump, who has frequently attacked the integrity of Justice Department officials, claiming they are on a “witch hunt” to bring him down, submitted written answers Tuesday to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia’s election interference. The answers to Mueller’s questions represent the first time Trump has given his own version of events to the special counsel’s team in the 11 months since Mueller first asked for a sit-down interview with the president.
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The details of Trump’s responses were not revealed, but his lawyers said that now that he had handed over his answers, the time had come to end the investigation, something Trump has repeatedly sought.
It is unclear whether Trump read McGahn’s memo about prosecuting Clinton and Comey or whether he pursued the prosecutions further. But the president has continued to privately discuss the matter, including the possible appointment of a second special counsel to investigate Clinton and Comey, according to two people who have spoken to Trump about the issue.
He has also repeatedly expressed disappointment in the FBI director, Christopher Wray, for failing to more aggressively investigate Clinton, calling him weak, one of the people said.
A White House spokesman declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the president’s criticism of Wray, whom he appointed last year after firing Comey.
“Mr. McGahn will not comment on his legal advice to the president,” said McGahn’s lawyer, William Burck. “Like any client, the president is entitled to confidentiality. Mr. McGahn would point out, though, that the president never, to his knowledge, ordered that anyone prosecute Hillary Clinton or James Comey.”
It is not clear which accusations Trump wanted prosecutors to pursue. He has accused Comey, without evidence, of illegally having classified information shared with The New York Times in a memo that Comey wrote about his interactions with the president. The document contained no classified information.
Trump’s lawyers also privately asked the Justice Department last year to investigate Comey for mishandling sensitive government information and for his role in the Clinton email investigation. Law-enforcement officials declined their requests. Comey is a witness against the president in Mueller’s investigation.
Trump has grown frustrated with Wray for what the president sees as his failure to investigate Clinton’s role in the Obama administration’s decision to allow the Russian nuclear agency to buy a uranium-mining company. Conservatives have long pointed to donations to the Clinton family’s foundation by people associated with the company, Uranium One, as proof of corruption. But no evidence has emerged that those donations influenced the U.S. approval of the deal.
Trump repeatedly pressed Justice Department officials about the status of Clinton-related investigations, including Whitaker when he was the chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations. CNN first reported those discussions.
In his conversation with McGahn, the president asked what stopped him from ordering the Justice Department to investigate Comey and Clinton, the two people familiar with the conversation said. He did have the authority to ask the Justice Department to investigate, McGahn said, but warned that making such a request could create a series of problems.
McGahn promised to write a memo outlining the president’s authorities. In the days that followed, lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office wrote a several-page document in which they strongly cautioned Trump against asking the Justice Department to investigate anyone.
The lawyers laid out a series of consequences. For starters, Justice Department lawyers could refuse to follow Trump’s orders even before an investigation began, setting off another political firestorm.
If charges were brought, judges could dismiss them. And Congress, they added, could investigate the president’s role in a prosecution and begin impeachment proceedings.
Ultimately, the lawyers warned, Trump could be voted out of office if voters believed he had abused his power.
Trump stoked his enmity for Clinton during the campaign, suggesting during a presidential debate that he would prosecute her if he was elected president. “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” Trump said.
Two weeks after his surprise victory, Trump backed off. “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” Trump told The New York Times. “She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways, and I am not looking to hurt them at all. The campaign was vicious.”
Nonetheless, he revisited the idea publicly and privately after taking office. Some of his more vocal supporters stirred his anger, including Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro, who has railed repeatedly on her weekly show that the president is being ill-served by the Justice Department.
Shortly after, Sessions wrote to lawmakers, partly at the urging of the president’s allies in the House, to inform them that federal prosecutors in Utah were examining whether to appoint a special counsel to investigate Clinton.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney for Utah declined to comment Tuesday.
Trump once called his distance from law enforcement one of the “saddest” parts of being president.
“I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department,” he said in a radio interview a year ago. “Well, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton and her emails and with her, the dossier?”
He added: “I am not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated.”