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Trump pushes back on report he tried to fire Mueller

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pushed back Friday against reports that he ordered White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June.

"Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories," Trump retorted dismissively when asked about it by reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The reports, first by the Times and then others, said Trump backed off on his attempt to fire the man who is investigating him, his election campaign's Russian contacts and his firings of FBI Director James Comey and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — but only after lawyer McGahn refused to relay his directive to the Justice Department and threatened to quit if Trump pressed the issue.

In Washington, Mueller's team was still on the job Friday, investigating the president and his 2016 election campaign.

After the news came out Thursday night, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia quickly accused Trump of crossing "a red line" that should be met forcibly by lawmakers to protect the Constitution. Warner is the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. But Republicans were quick to dismiss the report, pointing out that Mueller had not actually been fired.

Some legal experts noted that presidents, like anyone else, can say things they don't mean when angry. At the same time, others saw the alleged Trump order as part of a pattern of obstruction that could be pressed by Mueller, disrupting or even dooming Trump's presidency.

Jacob Frenkel, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said defense lawyers would argue that the conversation with McGahn "was an expression of frustration and irritation, not an intended personnel action."

A statement alone, without follow-up action, can be subject to different explanations and allow for reasonable doubt as to the intent, he indicated.

"It may not be the conclusion that people want to reach, but sitting back and looking at it objectively, the fact that there was no firing means there was no obstruction," Frenkel said.

Andrew Leipold, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, concurred.

"People say all sorts of things that they're going to do, and then they calm down and they think better of it and they get talked out of it," he said. "Some of this may just be no more than the president — as all presidents have done — racing their engines about things."

That said, this latest revelation isn't the only example of presidential action that could be seen as an attempt to interfere with an investigation of Trump and his campaign. Another is the firing Comey as FBI director last May. Mueller was appointed special counsel by Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions stepped aside because of his own close involvement with the Trump campaign.

"It is easy to see where this would be an element or component to consider as part of an obstruction mosaic," Frenkel said.

It could have no bearing on the investigation at all.

Or it could be part of an obstruction case against Trump or others.

But that raises a perennial constitutional question: Can the president be charged in criminal court? Some in the legal field say yes. More say no, the only recourse is impeachment by Congress.

Meanwhile, despite the sensational nature of the Times report, there is likely little that Mueller doesn't already know about events in the White House. More than 20 White House employees have given interviews to the special counsel's investigation into possible obstruction and Trump campaign ties to Russian election interference.

John Dowd, one of Trump's attorneys, said the White House, in what he called an "unprecedented" display of cooperation with Mueller's investigation, has turned over more than 20,000 pages of records. The president's 2016 campaign has turned over more than 1.4 million pages.

The number of voluntary interviews includes eight people from the White House counsel's office.

An additional 28 people affiliated with the Trump campaign have been interviewed by either the special counsel or congressional committees probing Russian election meddling.

So, what about political fallout?

Trump's national approval numbers are low, but his conservative base has kept up its solid support through all the criticism he has come under in his first year as president. Why would this be any different?

In Congress, Democrats have been quick to exploit the report. Warner called Trump's actions "a gross abuse of power." However, Republicans noted that the purported order came long ago and before Trump surrounded himself with new lawyers. Since then, his public demeanor toward Mueller has changed.

Nonetheless, Senate Republicans were worried last summer, and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis introduced legislation that would protect the special counsel. But that hasn't gone anywhere.

Trump has softened his public criticism of Mueller, White House officials say over and over that he has nothing to hide, and his lawyers have signaled they are cooperating, too.

Mueller's investigators hope to interview Trump soon.

This week, the president declared he was eager to do it — and under oath.

"I'm looking forward to it, actually," Trump said when asked by reporters. As for timing, he said, "I guess they're talking about two or three weeks, but I'd love to do it."

His lawyers walked that back a bit. No interview has been agreed to, all sides agreed.

The story of Trump's alleged effort to sack Mueller added just one more question.


Education
Sergeant Bluff-Luton gets state education honor

SERGEANT BLUFF -- The Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School has been picked for a notable award given to five schools by the Iowa Sate Board of Education.

The SB-L school in Woodbury County was given the Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award, which is given annually for successful efforts to eliminate achievement gaps.

In a release from the Iowa Department of Education on Thursday, this year’s winners were recognized for having the highest proficiency rates statewide in math and reading among a specific subgroup of students, such as students whose first language is not English and students from low-income backgrounds.

State assessment results from the last three years were examined to confirm a positive trend for each school.

“These schools are taking major steps forward in closing gaps in achievement while also working to raise achievement for all students,” said Charlie Edwards, president of the State Board of Education.

Edwards said Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School received its Breaking Barriers Award for work with students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds. Among those students, 94 percent are proficient in reading and math, compared to a statewide average of 68 percent.

The four other winners are Riverdale Heights Elementary School in the Pleasant Valley Community School District, Pleasant Valley High School in that same school district, Carlisle High School in Carlisle and Gilbert Intermediate School in the Gilbert Community School District. This is the first time two schools in the same district won a Breaking Barriers award.


Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal 

Guidance counselor Christine Zarkos talks to students at Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School in a January 2017 file photo. The state Department of Education on Friday presented the high school with a Breaking Barriers Award for its work with students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds.