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Special Counsel Expands Russia Probe To Include Trump, Reports Say

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump pushed back today against reports that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating him for possible obstruction of justice. The Washington Post first reported that revelation. It says Mueller planned to interview top current and former intelligence officials about their interactions with Trump. NPR has not confirmed this. The allegation stems from Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey and Comey's claims that Trump pressured him to back off the FBI's investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us in the studio. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So no surprise here - the president responded via his Twitter account.

LIASSON: Yes. And it was a jarring contrast to his tone yesterday after the shooting of Congressman Scalise and the others. He talked about a - how the country should be unified, said the country is at its best when we come together. But last night, as you said, The Washington Post published this story and today the president was tweeting - much more divisive tone. This afternoon he was tweeting about Hillary Clinton, asking why Hillary Clinton wasn't investigated for her own dealings with Russia and for obstruction.

This seems to be a classic Trump strategy. When he's accused of something he lashes out and accuses someone else of the exact same thing, in this case his old opponent Hillary Clinton. Earlier in the day he was attacking special counsel Bob Mueller. He said that he made up a phony collusion story with the Russians. Now they go for obstruction of justice - phony story. He said, this is a witch hunt - a phrase he's used before - he said, led by some very bad and conflicted people.

CORNISH: Is there a concerted White House strategy to go after or discredit special counsel Bob Mueller?

LIASSON: Actually, it's not a concerted strategy. In the White House the attacks appear to be confined to the president's tweets. The rest of the White House staff seems to be sticking to their new strategy of compartmentalizing, referring all these questions about the investigation to the president's outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz. But outside of the White House the president does have surrogates like Newt Gingrich who are attacking the special counsel, credit - questioning his credibility. Newt Gingrich called Mueller the anti-Trump special counsel, the tip of the deep state spear. And this is just a couple of weeks after he said that Mueller's appointment was a superb choice.

CORNISH: Now, if the president is so down on Mueller, why not fire him?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. And the White House deputy press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has been asked about this many times. But she said today, as she has said before, that while the president has the power to fire Mueller he has no intention of doing so. I would say that Republicans in Washington are almost unanimous in the opinion that to do that would cause a political firestorm that would be yet another self-inflicted wound of the president's own making.

CORNISH: It now seems like this story about Russia's meddling in the presidential election has morphed in a way, right? Like, the focus has become more and more on the president's recent actions.

LIASSON: Well, there's no doubt that this new story about the fact that the special counsel is investigating him for obstruction puts it on a different track. On the other hand, the bigger national security question of Russian interference in the 2016 elections is something that is still being looked into by investigators on Capitol Hill and the special counsel. And there are Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially on the intelligence committees, who believe - who are worried that the big question of Russia interference will get lost in this new focus on whether the president obstructed or not.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.