WASHINGTON — Even as President Donald Trump's advisers encourage him to accept the realities of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, longtime friends and allies are pushing Trump to fight back, citing concerns that his lawyers are naive to the existential threat facing the president.
Trump supporters and associates inside and outside the White House see the conciliatory path as risky to the maverick president's tenure. Instead, they want the street-fighting tweeter to criticize Mueller with abandon.
The struggle between supporters of the legal team's steady, cooperative approach, and the band of Trump loyalists who yearn for a fight, comes as the Mueller probe begins lapping at the door of the Oval Office. Mueller, who is investigating the firing of former FBI director James Comey and other key actions of the Trump administration, has signaled that his team intends to interview multiple current and former White House officials in the coming weeks and has requested large batches of documents from the executive branch.
In private, Trump remains relatively calm for now, but that doesn't mean he thinks the Russia probe is legitimate, and he could return to fighting Mueller at any moment, according to a group of about 15 Trump allies, advisers and former campaign aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations with the White House.
The president still periodically flashes his anger, blasting the Senate intelligence committee's investigation in a tweet last Thursday and urging them to investigate journalists instead of his campaign and family. And in a private dinner with social conservatives last month, Trump expressed frustration over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, which helped pave the road to Mueller's appointment.
“The president respects what Bob Mueller is doing and has fully cooperated and asked everyone around him to fully cooperate with Bob,” said Trump's attorney, John Dowd. “And as a result,” he added, there has been for months “a very productive, professional relationship.”
Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer responsible for responding to Mueller's information requests, said it's important to Trump “and the country to get this behind us.”
“The White House is working diligently in full cooperation with the special counsel to complete the responses to all pending requests, and the president's frustration does not extend to the special counsel personally in any way,” he added.
Lawyers have been gathering documents requested by Mueller's investigators — which include records about the brief tenure of ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn — and working to schedule interviews with aides. In recent weeks, they've also discussed a legal defense fund that could cover the cost of lower-level White House officials who may get wrapped up in the probe, and about the possibility of a single “pool counsel” to represent some aides.
But the question of cooperation is far from settled for Trump's allies, many of whom are pressing him to fight Mueller more aggressively.
That tension was apparent at a private dinner of close to a dozen conservative leaders with Trump and his top aides on Sept. 25, though accounts of the gathering vary.
In one version, one guest peppered Trump with questions about what he was going to do about the special counsel's investigation. While Trump was dismissive, the president said he was keeping his head low and such questions should be posed to Sessions himself, according to two people who were present and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private dinner.
But a third person in the room said that Trump was visibly angry with Sessions and made a flippant remark about the attorney general's decision to recuse himself from overseeing the federal Russia probe.
One former Trump campaign aide in contact with the president said Trump's feelings about Sessions have evolved in the last few months. Trump believes Sessions hurt him by not disclosing his interactions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the vetting process for attorney general.
Sessions should have been upfront with Trump and alerted him to those encounters rather than waiting for word of them to become public, the former campaign aide said. But the president's anger with Sessions also has diminished greatly in recent months, the same aide noted.
Supporters of Trump's legal team and the discipline imposed by Chief of Staff John Kelly are hoping that Trump will remain even-keeled and not jeopardize himself with public outbursts. They consider Mueller's appointment the product of the most serious of self-inflicted wounds — Trump's firing of Comey — but are confident Trump will survive the investigation.
The president, the White House staff and others are “relieved” to have some structure inside the White House after months of chaos growing from the combative approach, said one White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks inside the White House.
But others, including many who worked closely with Trump on his successful election campaign, don't trust Mueller and believe White House lawyers are foolhardy to cooperate when the president is at risk.
The president and his team need to understand that this is a “political brawl” — not just a legal fight — and take that fight to Mueller, said the former campaign aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions with the president and his team.
Trump will remain under control, one associate noted, as long as Mueller remains focused on Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, both of whom are under investigation. If the federal probe turns back toward the Trump family and business empire, then Trump may try to fire Mueller, the associate predicted.
The lay-low strategy is a departure in style for a president accustomed to rhetorical bombast. But after a period several months ago in which his advocates discussed ways to undercut the credibility of Mueller's investigation, his attorneys now talk openly about their respect for Mueller and their desire for full cooperation.
The anger inside and outside the White House stems from almost everyone in the president's orbit seeing the allegations of collusion as a “nothing burger.” But, with the reality of the investigations, it's a “nothing burger” they're now acknowledging they have to deal with.
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