President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at Florida State...

President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a Wednesday morning tweet to shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia probe — a message that the president’s legal team later argued was his opinion, not an order.

“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” Trump tweeted, referring to Mueller’s expansive investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and purported ties to the Trump campaign.

Trump issued the message to Sessions in a stream of tweets criticizing the probe that came as his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, entered the second day of his federal trial on banking and financial fraud charges brought forward by Mueller.

The president’s tweet was quickly criticized by several Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with Democrats arguing the missive was a public attempt by Trump to strong-arm Sessions and obstruct the Mueller probe.

Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani sought to ease some of the backlash over the tweet, issuing a statement that said the president had made no demands of Sessions.

“The President was expressing his opinion . . . He said ‘should’ not ‘must’ and no Presidential order was issued or will be,” Giuliani said.

The president’s call for Sessions to intervene comes despite Sessions recusing himself from the Russia probe last year to avoid any conflicts of interests. Trump has since made public his frustration with Sessions’ recusal, telling The New York Times in a July 2017 interview that he would not have appointed Sessions if he knew the attorney general planned on stepping aside from the Russia probe.

Mueller is reportedly examining Trump’s past tweets and public statements aimed at Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey, to weigh whether the president was attempting to obstruct the investigation by intimidating or pressuring them to halt the investigation, according to a report in The New York Times last week.

After Sessions stepped down from the investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein assumed responsibility for the probe, and appointed Mueller, a former FBI director with bipartisan support, to lead the probe. Trump in the past year has stepped up his attacks on both figures and the probe, questioning the impartiality of the investigation that has resulted in the indictments of Manafort, the president’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and former campaign aides Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters Trump’s message to Sessions was “entirely inappropriate” and any move by the Justice Department to fire Mueller “would have to be reported to Congress.”

“Jeff Sessions does not even have the authority to fire Robert Mueller. He has recused himself and appropriately so,” Collins said. “The only person who could fire Mueller is Rod Rosenstein.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters Trump’s tweet “indicated intent” to obstruct the Mueller probe.

“There is now highly credible evidence that the president of the United States is committing obstruction of justice in real time, right before our eyes,” said Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor.

Asked about the criticism, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during Wednesday’s news briefing “the president is not obstructing, he’s fighting back.”

“The president has watched this process play out, but also wants to see this come to an end,” Sanders said.

Trump, on Twitter and in public appearances has repeated his stance that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, and on Wednesday continued to downplay Manafort’s role overseeing his campaign for a period of five months.

“Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion — a Hoax!”

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