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Mueller said to examine whether Trump sought to slow probe

The move expands the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

[WASHINGTON] The special counsel investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election plans to interview two top US intelligence officials about whether President Donald Trump sought their help to get the FBI to back off a related probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to three people familiar with the inquiry.

The move expands the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. It had initially focused on Russia's election meddling and whether any of Mr Trump's associates colluded with the effort. Now it appears Mr Mueller is examining the president's own conduct, which may include whether Mr Trump tried to obstruct justice.

Mr Mueller is seeking to interview Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, according to the people, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Separately, Mr Coats is scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session Thursday.

A spokesman for Mr Trump's outside lawyer reacted angrily Wednesday, accusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation of breaking the law by disclosing the information.

"The FBI leak of information regarding the President is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal," Mark Corallo, the spokesman for Mr Trump's legal team, said in an email.

Mr Corallo didn't elaborate on why he singled out the FBI as the source of information. Mr Mueller's decision to talk with the two officials was reported earlier by the Washington Post.

Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement that "there's still no evidence of obstruction."  "Current and former leaders in the intelligence community have repeatedly said there's been no effort to impede the investigation in any way," Ms McDaniel said. "The continued illegal leaks are the only crime here."

At a hearing last week of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr Coats and Mr Rogers refused to say whether they were asked by Mr Trump to help impede an FBI investigation and suggested any response in a closed hearing would require consultations with White House lawyers on whether executive privilege should be invoked.

"To the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate," Mr Rogers said at the hearing, without answering whether he was asked - but not directed - to back off.

Mr Mueller's plans emerged just a week after former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Mr Trump pressed him in February to ease up on an investigation into Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign for misleading administration officials about his contacts with Russia's US ambassador.

Mr Comey also said Mr Trump repeatedly sought assurances that he wasn't a target of the Russia investigation. Mr Comey said he told the president on three occasions that he wasn't personally under investigation.

But Mr Comey suggested he expected Mr Mueller would look into whether Mr Trump's efforts to intervene in the FBI inquiry amounted to obstruction of justice.

Mr Trump said when he dismissed Mr Comey on May 9 that the reason was the former FBI chief's handling of the investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. He cited the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.  But days later he said in an NBC interview that he had decided to fire Mr Comey before getting their input and he was thinking of "this Russia thing" when he did it.

"Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Mr Comey knowing there was no good time to do it," Mr Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News in an interview broadcast May 11. "And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself - I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."

Mr Comey told senators on June 8 that Mr Trump's shifting explanations for dismissing him were "lies, plain and simple." Mr Trump and the White House disputed Mr Comey's description of the events.

Mr Mueller was appointed special counsel after Mr Comey's firing. He's been building a team of investigators for a wide-ranging inquiry into Russia's meddling in the 2016 US presidential campaign.

He met with the two top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday to discuss preventing conflicts in their separate investigations into Russian election interference, and he's set to meet with House Intelligence panel leaders in coming days.

Despite suggestions by a Trump friend in a television interview that the president was weighing dismissing Mr Mueller as special counsel, the White House declared late Tuesday that there was no such plan.

"While the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so," Mr Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.