US President Donald Trump on Sunday angrily denounced the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election meddling as “McCarthyism at its WORST!”, as he slammed a report that the White House counsel had given investigators detailed testimony about the president’s actions at key moments now under scrutiny.
In a series of early morning tweets, Mr Trump said White House counsel Don McGahn and other aides had been encouraged to be fully transparent in their testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller as part of an effort to bring the Russia matter to a quick close.
But he fumed at the suggestion in a front-page report in The New York Times that Mr McGahn had co-operated fully to protect himself from legal jeopardy, giving Mr Mueller's team more than the president was aware of in 30 hours of testimony during the past nine months.
Calling the story a “fake piece”, Mr Trump seemed particularly incensed at the suggestion that Mr McGahn could be a “rat” like John Dean, the former White House counsel who testified against Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
"The Failing New York Times wrote a story that made it seem like the White House Councel [sic] had TURNED on the President, when in fact it is just the opposite – & the two Fake reporters knew this. This is why the Fake News Media has become the Enemy of the People. So bad for America!" he tweeted.
Mr Mueller is investigating whether the president sought to obstruct justice, as well as whether his campaign colluded with Russia’s covert effort to sway the 2016 presidential election in Mr Trump’s favour.
“I have nothing to hide... and have demanded transparency so that this Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt can come to a close,” Mr Trump tweeted.
“So many lives have been ruined over nothing – McCarthyism at its WORST!”
In another tweet, he declared: “Study the late Joseph McCarthy, because we are now in period with Mueller and his gang that make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby! Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The New York Times said Mr McGahn had laid out for investigators Mr Trump's fury over the probe – and the ways in which he asked Mr McGahn to respond to it.
Among the episodes he testified to were Mr Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey, and his obsession with putting a loyalist in charge of the probe, according to the newspaper. It noted that Mr McGahn played a key role in stopping Mr Trump from firing Mr Mueller, who was made special counsel after Mr Comey's firing.
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Mr Trump’s lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, said he had not debriefed Mr McGahn on his testimony, but that the former head of the president’s legal team, John Dowd, had told him the White House counsel was “a strong witness for the president”.
"The president encouraged him to testify, is happy that he did, is quite secure that there is nothing in the testimony that will hurt the president," Mr Giuliani said on NBC's Meet the Press.
"So I believe this is a desperate special counsel who leaked this to The New York Times."
Mr Giuliani however acknowledged that if the leak didn’t come from Mr Mueller, it may have come from Mr McGahn.
The New York Times report cited a dozen unnamed current and former White House officials and "others briefed on the matter".
The president’s latest outburst against the Mueller probe comes amid a separate uproar over the president’s use of security clearances to punish his critics, which also has evoked comparisons to McCarthyism.
Former senior intelligence officials have spoken out in newspaper editorial pages, on television and in petitions since Trump stripped former CIA chief John Brennan of his security clearance last week.
Mr Brennan, who has called Mr Trump’s behaviour towards Russia “treasonous” and doubled down on that assessment on Sunday, has discomfited even some of his supporters with the intensity of his criticism.
But James Clapper – the former director of national intelligence, who said Mr Brennan was “subtle like a freight train” – insisted on CNN that the use of security clearance to quash criticism was damaging to US institutions.
"Doing this would be really off base," agreed retired admiral Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was speaking on Fox News Sunday.
Michael Hayden, a former CIA director who was warned by the White House that he too risked losing his security clearance, warned on CNN that Mr Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community is “dangerously close to being permanently broken”.