WASHINGTON - The Washington Post reported Tuesday that special counsel Robert Mueller told attorneys for U.S. President Donald Trump last month that while he is a subject of investigation, Mueller did not consider him a criminal target at that time.
The Post based its report on information from several people familiar with private negotiations Mueller had with Trump's lawyers in early March about potentially interviewing the president as part of the probe into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia.
The U.S. intelligence community has assessed Russian President Vladimir Putin directed an influence campaign meant to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton's chances of winning in favor of Trump. Trump has repeatedly denied there was any collusion and has called the Mueller investigation a witch hunt.
The Post said Mueller told the Trump legal team he is preparing a report about the president's actions and reiterated the need to speak with Trump. Trump's lawyers declined to publicly comment for the article. The paper said Trump and some in his inner circle interpreted Mueller's words as assurance the president's risk of criminal jeopardy was low, while others warned Mueller could be baiting Trump into an interview that could put him in greater legal danger.
A person who is the subject of an investigation but not considered a target can later become a target if evidence emerges linking them to a crime.
Mueller began leading his investigation nearly a year ago. He has indicted 13 Russians on conspiracy charges for their roles in election interference. He also secured guilty pleas from Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to federal investigators about their contacts with Russian officials.
On Tuesday, London-based Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in prison and a $20,000 fine for lying to investigators about his contacts with a business associate of Trump's one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort's deputy, Rick Gates.
Manafort has not been charged with any crimes related to the presidential contest, but faces multiple counts of criminal wrongdoing in connection with years of lobbying efforts in Ukraine for one-time Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, who was toppled in a popular uprising in 2014 before fleeing to exile in Russia.
Manafort has pleaded not guilty.