President Donald Trump’s lawyers have been counseling him since this past summer to play nice with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Cooperation with the Russia probe, the president’s attorneys have argued, is the best path to the exoneration Trump has craved all year – a way not just to get things over with quickly, but also to signal to prosecutors that the administration has good intentions and nothing to hide.
Now, as Mueller’s probe moves deeper into the president’s inner circle, some of Trump’s longtime advisers are urging him to stick with the approach outlined by White House lawyer Ty Cobb.
“Take a deep breath, follow Ty Cobb’s lead, trust the process,” said former Trump legal spokesman Mark Corallo. “Antagonizing prosecutors is never a good idea. This is not arbitration. This is not mergers and acquisitions. This is not real estate law. This is criminal law. Prosecutors can do things with their almost unlimited resources, time and authority.”
Trump, who has specifically been advised to avoid targeting Mueller on Twitter, kept quiet about the special counsel Friday even as his former White House national security adviser, Michael Flynn, entered a guilty plea for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russian’s former ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition last December—and has agreed to cooperate in Mueller’s investigation.
But Mueller’s advancing investigation has also prompted some of Trump’s old campaign hands and longtime loyalists to argue that now is the time to ditch Cobb’s approach and get more aggressive with Mueller.
Breitbart, the conservative website run by former senior Trump strategist Steve Bannon, took aim Friday at Cobb, calling him “disastrously wrong” and speaking with “borderline delusion” over his insistence the Mueller probe would be wrapped up as soon as the end of this year.
Cobb recently told POLITICO he expected the special counsel to wrap up interviews with Trump White House aides soon after Thanksgiving – and he was hopeful a statement would follow that cleared Trump of any wrongdoing.
Trump shared that optimistic outlook with members and friends during his visit last weekend to his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida, according to people who spoke with him there.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser close to Bannon, said in an interview that Cobb has established outsized expectations with the president that could end up backfiring.
“The idea a lawyer representing Trump is publicly setting a timeline for the special counsel is not serving his client well,” Nunberg said.
Cobb and the White House declined comment when asked about the direct attacks on their legal strategy. They stood by Cobb’s statement Friday, which skirted past Flynn’s ties to Trump dating to the 2016 campaign and instead highlighted his service in the Obama administration and the fact he worked in the Trump White House for 25 days—as well as the fact that Flynn was forced out amid claims that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about the same Russian contacts that got him in trouble with the FBI.
The White House attorney also said the latest development in the Mueller probe suggests the special counsel is “moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
But history suggests he’ll be disappointed. The 21 previous independent counsel and special counsel probes dating back to the Carter administration have lasted an average of three-and-a-half years from appointment to final report, according to a POLITICO analysis, with some unusual outliers like the case involving President Bill Clinton’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which lasted more than a decade.
And Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as well as former campaign aide Rick Gates, have both pleaded not guilty to charges in the Mueller probe and face trial sometime next year.
“You say what you need to say to keep the sun coming up in the morning, but if you woke Ty Cobb up in the middle of the night and ask him if he thinks this is really going to be over in three weeks, I think his answer is, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? Of course it won’t,’” said one white-collar attorney representing a senior Trump official in the Russia probe. “But it may be the most useful thing he can say to keep the president from going overboard and to keep the wheels on the bus.”
But a person familiar with the Trump team’s legal strategy said Cobb and Trump’s personal lawyers John Dowd and Jay Sekulow face a major challenge in trying to contain a president who has proven to be trigger-happy with his complaints about the Russia probe on Twitter and in casual discussions with lawmakers, friends and aides that end up making it into mainstream media reporting.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported Trump had pleaded with several senators, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, to wrap up his Russia probe.
“He is incapable of restraining off-hand conversations,” this person said of Trump. “That’s what obviously gets him into trouble. Now with Flynn maybe this is something that really does come back to bite him in the ass.”
Patrick Cotter, a former assistant U.S. attorney who previously worked with Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s senior prosecutors, said the president’s legal team is in an unenviable position. Trump’s frequent tweets, for example, “are not part of any strategy devised by a lawyer who actually does white-collar work for a living.”
When Manafort and Gates were indicted in late October on 12 counts including money laundering and tax fraud, the president took to Twitter to note the allegations pre-dated their time on his campaign. The same day, he blasted his former campaign foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos—whose guilty plea to a count of lying to investigations was unsealed on the same day as the Manafort-Gates indictments—as a “young, low level volunteer…who has already proven to be a liar.”
Trump’s strategy of diminishing relationships with those who have been charged, Cotter added, has become “less and less effective” with each new development, from the Manafort indictment to the Papadopoulos plea deal and now with Flynn.
“Hard to say nothing is happening here,” he said. “But with Flynn, it becomes almost comical to suggest that the prosecutors have not established powerful evidence that Russia was in active and substantive communication about national policy issues with the Trump organization before and after the election.”
The white-collar attorney representing the senior Trump official in the Russia probe said the president’s lawyers don’t have many options beyond cooperating and trying to publicly nudge the probe toward a conclusion.
“What was the other strategy you could pursue that’d be better than this one? Run Flynn over with a fucking car? Pardon him? What were you going to do? It’s easy to snipe at these folks. But in fairness I think you’ve got to ask yourself what was the alternative,” the attorney said.
“Their strategy is designed to do the best they can with what they had,” the attorney added. “Essentially they’ve got no leverage. They’ve got no control over the situation and no ability meaningfully to influence what Mueller does and when he does it. None. They’re like the knight in the Monty Python movie. He’s got his arms and legs chopped off and he stands there shouting, ‘Bring it on! It’s just a scratch.’”
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