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McConnell says he has confidence in Mueller

MARY CLARE JALONICK, ZEKE MILLER and CHAD DAY

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday expressed confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller and said he should be allowed to "finish his job," the Senate leader's first response to President Donald Trump's recent outburst of criticism of Mueller and his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"I think he will have great credibility with the American people when he reaches a conclusion of this investigation," McConnell said. "So I have a lot of confidence in him."

McConnell was silent through the weekend as other Republicans alternately criticized Trump for his series of tweets and expressed faith that he would not move to have Mueller removed. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday he had "received assurances" that Mueller would not be fired.

Trump blistered Mueller and his investigation all weekend on Twitter and started in again Monday, questioning the probe's legitimacy with language no recent president has used for a federal inquiry. "A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!" Trump tweeted.

Mueller is leading a criminal probe into whether Trump's 2016 presidential campaign had ties to Russia and whether there has been obstruction of justice since then.

White House officials and Trump's lawyers repeatedly said over the weekend that Mueller would not be fired. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that the White House does not think firing Mueller would be "the most productive step forward," but that they want to see the investigation come to an end. She said Trump's tweets were about his frustration with the process.

Trump has fumed to confidants that the Mueller probe is "going to choke the life out of" his presidency if allowed to continue indefinitely, according to an outside adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with the president.

Other notable Republicans have told Trump to cut it out. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic, even raised the prospect of impeachment.

"We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel," Flake tweeted Tuesday evening. "Don't create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don't go there."

Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Monday that firing Mueller would be "the stupidest thing the president could do." Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also have spoken out.

Still, GOP lawmakers said they didn't think it was necessary to pass bipartisan bills introduced last summer to protect the special counsel should he be fired.

Of speculation that Trump would fire Mueller, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said: "I don't think that's going to happen so I just think it's not necessary, and obviously legislation requires a presidential signature. I don't see the necessity of picking that fight right now."

Even so, Cornyn said there would be "a number of unintended consequences" if Mueller were to be removed and lawmakers had communicated that message to Trump "informally and formally."

Trump cannot directly fire Mueller. Any dismissal, for cause, would have to be carried out by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed the counsel and has continued to express support.

Trump this week added a new lawyer, Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to his legal team. DiGenova has been outspoken in his defense of Trump, talking of a "brazen plot" to exonerate Hillary Clinton in an email investigation and to "frame" Trump with a "falsely created crime."

In an apparent effort to bolster its star power, the Trump legal had also reached out to high-profile Washington attorney Ted Olson from the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP about joining the group. But his law partner Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a member of the firm's executive and management committees, tweeted Tuesday that Olson would not be joining the legal team.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Darlene Superville and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.