US Republican senators have warned President Donald Trump against trying to shut down the federal probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, saying it's important to let special counsel Robert Mueller do his job.
Mr Trump, a Republican, has renewed his Twitter attacks on both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Mueller's probe since the firing on Friday of the bureau's former deputy director, Andrew McCabe, days before he was eligible to retire with a full pension.
"Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added...does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!"
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who has criticised Mr Trump harshly, said it appeared the President's latest comments were aimed at the firing of Mueller.
"I don't know what the designs are on Mueller, but it seems to be building toward that, and I just hope it doesn't go there, because it can't. We can't in Congress accept that," Mr Flake told CNN's State of the Union on Sunday.
"So I would expect to see considerable pushback in the next couple of days urging the President not to go there. He can't go there."
On Saturday, Mr Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd urged the Justice Department official overseeing Mr Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, to "bring an end to alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss James Comey".
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Republican senator Lindsey Graham said it was very important that Mr Mueller be allowed to proceed without interference and that many Republicans share this view.
"The only reason Mr Mueller could ever be dismissed is for cause. I see no cause when it comes to Mr Mueller. He needs to be able to do his job independent of any political influence. I pledge to the American people as a Republican, to ensure that Mr Mueller can continue to do his job without any interference."
"As I have said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we're a rule of law nation," Mr Graham said.
Sources contradict Sessions' testimony he opposed Russia outreach
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony that he opposed a proposal for Mr Trump's 2016 campaign team to meet with Russians has been contradicted by three people who told Reuters they have spoken about the matter to investigators with Special Counsel Robert Mueller or congressional committees.
Mr Sessions testified before Congress in November 2017 that he "pushed back" against the proposal made by former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos at a March 31, 2016 campaign meeting. Then a senator from Alabama, Sessions chaired the meeting as head of the Mr Trump campaign's foreign policy team.
"Yes, I pushed back," Mr Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee on November 14, when asked whether he shut down Papadopoulos' proposed outreach to Russia. Mr Sessions has since also been interviewed by Mr Mueller.
Three people who attended the March campaign meeting told Reuters they gave their version of events to FBI agents or congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. Although the accounts they provided to Reuters differed in certain respects, all threes, who declined to be identified, said Sessions had expressed no objections to Papadopoulos' idea.
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However, another meeting attendee, JD Gordon, who was the Mr Trump campaign's director of national security, told media outlets including Reuters in November that Mr Sessions strongly opposed Papadopoulos' proposal and said no one should speak of it again. In response to a request for comment, Mr Gordon said on Saturday that he stood by his statement.
- Mr Sessions, through Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores, declined to comment beyond his prior testimony. The special counsel's office also declined to comment. Spokeswomen for the Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee did not immediately comment.
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Reuters was unable to determine whether Mr Mueller is probing discrepancies in accounts of the March 2016 meeting.
The three accounts, which have not been reported, raise new questions about Mr Sessions' testimony regarding contacts with Russia during the campaign.
Mr Sessions previously failed to disclose to Congress meetings he had with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and testified in October that he was not aware of any campaign representatives communicating with Russians.
Some Democrats have seized on discrepancies in Mr Sessions' testimony to suggest the attorney general may have committed perjury. A criminal charge would require showing Mr Sessions intended to deceive. Mr Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee that he had always told the truth and testified to the best of his recollection.
Legal experts expressed mixed views about the significance of the contradictions cited by the three sources.
Mr Sessions could argue he misremembered events or perceived his response in a different way, making any contradictions unintentional, some experts said.
The March 2016 campaign meeting in Washington was memorialized in a photo Mr Trump posted on Instagram of roughly a dozen men sitting around a table, including Mr Trump, Mr Sessions and Papadopoulos.
Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty in October to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his Russia contacts, is now cooperating with Mr Mueller.
According to court documents released after his guilty plea, Papadopoulos said at the campaign meeting that he had connections who could help arrange a meeting between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Papadopoulos continued to pursue Russian contacts after the March 2016 meeting and communicated with some campaign officials about his efforts, according to the court documents.
Mr Trump has said that he does not remember much of what happened at the "very unimportant" campaign meeting. Mr Trump has said he did not meet Putin before becoming president.
Moscow has denied meddling in the election and Mr Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Russia.