When one of President Donald Trump’s lawyers, John Dowd, told the Daily Beast that “I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will…bring an end to the alleged Russia Collusion investigation,” the backlash was swift and fierce. Asked about Mr. Dowd’s comments on Fox News Sunday, Rep. Trey Gowdy, usually a reliable defender of Mr. Trump’s, had harsh words. “If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” he said.
The episode ignited renewed speculation that Mr. Trump, who has been on a firing spree of late, might actually go through with firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller — a prospect that was met with considerable alarm on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lindsey Graham declared on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that, “if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.”
Mr. Dowd later clarified that he was speaking for himself, not his client. Still, it is no secret that Mr. Trump could not agree more.
Surely to his lawyers’ dismay. Mr. Trump has in recent days flung wide the window into the Presidential mind that is his Twitter feed to vent his fury at Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” he tweeted. “It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!!”
The Tweet marked the first time Mr. Trump has mentioned Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name, a striking departure from the strategy of cooperation with Mr. Mueller that Trump’s legal team has advocated. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mr. Gowdy offered similar advice to Mr. Trump that he did to Mr. Dowd. “If the allegation is collusion with the Russians, and there is no evidence of that, and you are innocent of that, act like it,” Mr. Gowdy said.
The Best Laid Plans
To the great frustration, of his attorneys, it has been Mr. Trump’s own actions that provide the strongest basis for suspicion. Mr. Trump’s conspicuous refusal to criticize Russia, his reluctance to acknowledge Moscow’s culpability in election meddling and his bafflingly unshakable admiration for Vladimir Putin do little to dispel the notion that he is somehow under the Kremlin’s sway.
Mr. Trump‘s unceremonious sacking of FBI Director James Comey; his aborted attempt to fire the Special Counsel last year; and his dogged efforts to discredit Mr. Mueller, the FBI and anyone involved with the Russia investigation are a sled of bricks his legal team must haul. And it gets heavier with each tweet.
Mr. Trump’s celebratory Tweets about the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe heaped more weight on the load. A career civil servant who oversaw both the Clinton e-mail investigation and the FBI’s Russia probe, Mr. McCabe was sacked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions just a day before he had planned to retire.
Mr. Sessions insisted that the decision was merited and based on the recommendation of career officials at the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and a yet to be released report on a broader investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General (OIG) into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and the Russia probe.
The OIG reportedly faulted McCabe for a “lack of candor” in recounting an interaction with a reporter in which Mr. McCabe sought to push back on a perception that the FBI was not vigorously pursuing an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Lack of candor is absolutely a fireable offense at the FBI. But, Mr. Trump’s past calls for Mr. McCabe’s ouster were sure to make his dismissal controversial.
Why didn't A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
The Justice Department was careful to separate the decision on McCabe from Mr. Trump’s anger with him, emphasizing that it was guided by career civil service officials rather than ordered by the White House. But, Mr. Trump promptly undermined that argument with a tweet proclaiming Mr. McCabe firing as “a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy.”
“The President does not help the Justice Department argue that this is a fair and nonpolitical process by repeatedly engaging on this and gloating about this,” Matt Appuzzo, who covers the FBI for the New York Times, said on a Times podcast Monday.
Mr. Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey last year added obstruction of justice to the list potential charges against Mr. Trump with which his legal team must contend. While Mr. McCabe’s dismissal seems to have gone through the proper process, Mr. Trump’s tweet raised questions about whether he might have improperly applied pressure to bring it about. From what we know so far, it appears that Mr. Trump is likely on safe legal ground, but his tweets over the weekend added needless complications for his legal team.
A Red Line
Mr. Trump insists that he has done nothing wrong, leading his lawyers to conclude that the best approach is to cooperate. An exoneration by Mr. Mueller investigation would definitively lift the cloud that the Russia scandal has placed over his Presidency. If Mr. Trump is innocent, working with Mr. Mueller and his team is the quickest way to put the issue to bed.
Mr. Mueller’s activity to date has focused on the periphery of Mr. Trump’s orbit, scrupulously avoiding indication of where the investigation may be going in regard to Mr. Trump. But, that is starting to change.
Mr. Trump’s defiance of his lawyers’ cooperative approach may stem from Mr. Mueller’s recent decision to subpoena Trump Organization business records. Mr. Mueller’s move can only be interpreted one way — the Russia investigation is getting closer to Mr. Trump himself. Mr. Trump has previously suggested that if the Special Counsel’s investigation extended to his business dealings would represent a “red line.” Now that Mr. Mueller has crossed it, Mr. Trump is furious.
As he has found himself more directly in the Special Counsel’s crosshairs, Mr. Trump, who puts great stock in his gut instincts, is now casting aside his attorneys’ counsel for the sort of bare-knuckled brawling that has historically been among his go to tactics.
According to reporting by the New York Times, Mr. Trump is fuming about his lawyers:
“As [Mueller’s investigation] goes forward, Mr. Trump has questioned his lawyers’ approach and clashed with them about whether to be interviewed by Mr. Mueller. The president believes he is his best spokesman and can explain to Mr. Mueller that he did nothing wrong. The lawyers see little upside.”
In recent days, Mr. Trump has reportedly been chewing over the dismissal of one of his lawyers, Ty Cobb, who has been among the strongest voices among his legal team arguing for cooperation with the Special Counsel’s investigation. It was also Mr. Cobb who insisted that the whole thing would be over by last Christmas. It’s not.
Another indication of Mr. Trump’s preference for a more aggressive approach is the newest addition to his stable of attorneys, Joseph E. diGenova, a Washington lawyer who has claimed that Mr. Trump is being framed.
“There was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime,” Mr. diGenova said in a Fox News appearance earlier this year. “Make no mistake about it: A group of F.B.I. and D.O.J. people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime,” he said.
Mr. diGenova’s pugnacious style seems in keeping with Mr. Trump’s combative instincts. But, for the rest of his legal team, Mr. Trump’s renewed preference for an antagonistic approach to the Russia investigation is troubling.
The Times also reports that Mr. Dowd has grown increasingly frustrated with his legal team’s lack of control over a client whose public outbursts are compounding his legal problems. So much so that he is told friends that he is contemplating resigning. When Mr. Dowd said he was praying that the Special Counsel investigation would end, it appears that he was speaking for himself too.