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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this June 21, 2017, file photo, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington. President Donald Trump is questioning the impartiality of Mueller's investigation and says the probe is groundless, while raising doubts about whether a fired top FBI official kept personal memos outlining his interactions with Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WASHINGTON -- More Republicans are telling President Donald Trump in ever blunter terms to lay off his escalating criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia probe. But party leaders are taking no action to protect Mueller.

After criticizing Mueller and his investigation all weekend on Twitter, Trump started in again on Monday, questioning the probe's legitimacy with language no recent president has used for a federal inquiry. "A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!" Trump tweeted.

Mueller is leading a criminal investigation into whether Trump's 2016 presidential campaign had ties to Russia and whether there has been obstruction of justice since then.

Trump was told to cut it out on Sunday by such notable Republicans as Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then on Monday, he was told that firing Mueller would be "the stupidest thing the president could do" by Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

But Hatch, on CNN, also said he didn't see any need for legislation to protect Mueller. That sentiment was widely echoed by GOP leaders.

In recent months, bills to protect the special counsel have stalled, and Republican leaders have stuck to statements endorsing Mueller or denying he is in trouble.

Democrats say legislation is needed.

"Immediately," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. And Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic, said, "If you don't pick this fight, then we might as well not be here."

But GOP leaders said they saw no reason to leap to stop a firing they don't think is in sight.

"I don't think that's going to happen so I just think it's not necessary, and obviously legislation requires a presidential signature," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "I don't see the necessity of picking that fight right now."

Still, Cornyn said there would be "a number of unintended consequences" if Mueller were to be removed, and lawmakers had communicated that message to Trump "informally and formally."

White House lawyer Ty Cobb issued a statement Sunday tamping down the speculation, saying Trump is not "considering or discussing" Mueller's removal. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump has "some well-established frustration" about the probe but insisted there is no internal discussion about removing Mueller.


Separately, Trump's attorneys have provided the special counsel's office with written descriptions that chronicle key moments under investigation in hopes of curtailing the scope of a presidential interview, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Trump's legal team recently shared the documents in an effort to limit any session between the president and Mueller to a few select topics, the people said. The lawyers are worried that Trump, who has made erroneous claims, would be vulnerable in an hourslong interview.

The decision to share materials with Mueller's team is part of an effort by Trump's lawyers to minimize his exposure to the special counsel.

Trump has told aides he is "champing at the bit" to sit for an interview, according to one person. But his lawyers, who are carefully negotiating the terms of a sit-down, recognize the high stakes.

Mueller's team is particularly focused on Trump's firing of his national security adviser and the FBI director, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

The president has denied any wrongdoing, calling the investigation a "witch hunt."

Behind the scenes, his lawyers are moving into what one adviser called "crunchtime" -- reviewing the likely questions Mueller's team will have for the president.

John Dowd, an attorney for the president, declined to comment on any records provided to the special counsel. Peter Carr, spokesman for the special counsel's office, also declined to comment.

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The written materials provided to Mueller's office include summaries of internal White House memos and contemporaneous correspondence about events Mueller is investigating, including the ousters of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey. The documents describe the White House players involved and the president's actions.

Special counsel investigators have told Trump's lawyers that their main questions about the president fall into two simple categories, the two people said: "What did he do?" and "What was he thinking when he did it?"

Trump's lawyers expect Mueller's team to ask whether Trump knew about Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, for example, and what instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact, according to two advisers.

Trump said in February that he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with Kislyak. He said he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The records do not include Trump's personal version of events but provide a narrative of the White House view, the people said. Trump's lawyers hope the evidence eliminates the need to ask the president about some episodes.


In preparation, Trump on Monday brought on another lawyer. Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, will join his team later this week.

DiGenova has been outspoken in his defense of Trump, talking of a "brazen plot" to exonerate Clinton in an email investigation and to "frame" Trump with a "falsely created crime."

His hiring, pushed by Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, was delayed briefly to ensure that diGenova's work for the president would not conflict with his firm's other clients.

DiGenova has endorsed the notion that a secretive group of FBI agents concocted the Russia investigation as a way to keep Trump from becoming president. "There was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn't win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime," he said on Fox News in January.

Little evidence has emerged to support that theory.

DiGenova did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Trump's legal team has been in tumult in recent weeks. On Saturday, Dowd called on the Justice Department to end the special counsel investigation. Dowd said at the time that he was speaking for the president but later backtracked. According to two people briefed on the matter, he was in fact acting at the president's urging to call for an end to the inquiry.

Earlier this month, Trump did not tell his lawyers that he was in discussions with another Washington lawyer, Emmet Flood, about representing him. Flood represented former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.

And on Monday, the team appeared poised for a shake-up, according to two people briefed on the matter, as Trump openly discussed firing one of his lawyers and another considered resigning.

Trump has weighed aloud in recent days to close associates whether to dismiss Cobb, who had pushed a strategy of cooperating fully with the special counsel investigation. The president reassured Cobb that he had no plans to fire him, according to a person who spoke with the president late Monday, in part to prevent a narrative that his team was in disarray after The New York Times began making inquiries.

Dowd has contemplated leaving his post because he has concluded that he has no control over the behavior of the president, the two people briefed on the matter said. Ignoring his lawyers' advice, Trump has reverted to a more aggressive strategy of publicly assailing the inquiry that he initially adopted in the weeks immediately after Mueller was appointed.

Dowd said he had no plans to leave the team. "I'm sitting here working on the president's case right now," he said in a telephone interview on Monday night. Cobb has told people that the president recently implored him to stay.

Trump is also discussing adding other lawyers to the team, according to one person with knowledge of the matter.

The tumult marked the greatest instability on the team since Trump pushed aside his personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, last summer, and was passed over by many of Washington's top lawyers before he settled on his current crop of attorneys.

Information for this article was contributed by Mary Clare Jalonick, Zeke Miller, Chad Day, Lisa Mascaro, Darlene Superville and Eric Tucker of The Associated Press; by Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times; and by Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky of The Washington Post.

A Section on 03/20/2018

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