One year in, Mueller probe is circling the White House

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Washington (AFP) - One year into his investigation of links between the Trump campaign and Russia, special counsel Robert Mueller has snared several top lieutenants of the president. Now his probe looms threateningly over Donald Trump himself.

The president has called the inquiry by Mueller's staff of top-notch investigators and lawyers a "$10,000,000 Witch Hunt," repeatedly proclaiming his innocence and denying any collusion between Team Trump and Moscow.

Since his appointment on May 17, 2017, Mueller -- a veteran prosecutor and former FBI director -- has not said a word about his work.

But after racking up 22 indictments, including those of former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, there is little doubt where the probe is headed.

The White House is clearly worried about what Mueller might know. Nearly everyone around Trump, including family members, has retained personal lawyers.

Trump's inner circle and Republicans also worry that, if the probe doesn't conclude soon, their insurance policy against his possible impeachment, the Republican-controlled Congress, could be lost if Democrats prevail in November elections.

Vice President Mike Pence told NBC last week that after one year, the probe should come to a close.

"We've fully cooperated in it, and in the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up," Pence said.

That impatience, analysts say, belies the real concerns in the White House.

"This isn't about 'the law' anymore," said Bradley Moss, a Washington national security lawyer at the office of Mark S. Zaid, P.C.

"The president seems well aware that his political future rests in holding the line in the Senate and avoiding conviction by that body in the context of impeachment."

- Circling the White House -

When he fired then FBI director James Comey on May 9 last year, Trump ostensibly hoped the investigation into possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election would disappear.

The move backfired. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein put the probe in the hands of an untouchable independent prosecutor, naming Mueller to the job.

A lanky, taciturn 73-year-old ex-Marine, Mueller was given a broad mandate to chase down anything vaguely tied to Russia and the 2016 election.

"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" an angry Trump declared at the time.

Since then, Mueller's team has quietly interviewed scores of Trump intimates, government officials, and foreigners, including Comey, Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, former CIA director Mike Pompeo, and White House counsel Don McGahn.

No one on Mueller's team has explained their approach. Yet each public step they take shows they are circling the White House.

The first was the July 26 FBI raid on Manafort's home. Manafort was then indicted on October 30 on money laundering, tax evasion and bank fraud charges.

The same day, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign affairs advisor to the Trump campaign, was indicted and pleaded guilty to one charge of lying to investigators, in a clear deal to cooperate with Mueller's team.

On December 1, Flynn, a key campaign insider, also pleaded guilty to a single charge of lying, indicating he too was cooperating.

A fourth key event was the April 9 FBI raid on the New York residences and offices of Trump's longtime personal fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, in a separate Justice Department probe over questionable business dealings, hush payments to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump, and other matters.

Yet many speculate Cohen could be compelled to "flip" on his old boss and give evidence to Mueller's operation.

- Questions for the White House -

According to reports, in bursts of fury, Trump sought to fire Mueller, Rosenstein, and Sessions several times during the past year, and was only stopped by his own advisors.

He has also repeatedly changed up his team of attorneys, in visible turmoil over the right legal strategy.

Now a showdown is nearing. Mueller has asked to interview Trump. So far, the White House has not accepted, suggesting they see significant risks in doing so.

A leaked list of questions Mueller's team proposed to the White House could explain why.

They showed that Mueller is studying possible obstruction of justice by Trump, including his firing of Comey and attempts to protect Flynn.

Mueller also appears to suspect Trump knew about a series of contacts between his staff, including family members, and Russians during the campaign in 2016.

And he also asked questions in relation to Trump's business dealings.

While that could lead to a high-level legal battle, Trump increasingly appears more focused on how the November vote could determine his fate.

Republicans have ramped up efforts in recent weeks to convince voters the investigation is corrupt and biased.

"Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all," Trump alleged in a tweet last month.

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