It took nearly 24 hours for President Donald Trump to tweet about the news that his former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents — a delay that Trump’s advisers said was not uncommon for the president, who often tweets after catching up on cable news.
Many Republicans at first saw the radio silence as a welcome sign of restraint.
But by Sunday, the notoriously hot-headed president had already claimed Flynn was fired earlier this year in part for lying to the FBI and had moved on to accusing the nation’s top law-enforcement agency of being “in tatters.”
“Worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness,” he tweeted.
The tweets all combined to reignite fears among people close to Trump that the president is not taking the special counsel’s investigation seriously enough and is getting bad advice from his legal team.
Trump supporters, former campaign aides and former administration officials are beginning to privately raise red flags that the White House can’t keep up with the president’s own tweets and doesn’t have a coherent messaging strategy on the Russia investigation, according to interviews with a half-dozen people close to the president.
The people close to the president stressed that they are not worried that special counsel Robert Mueller will ensnare the president or find evidence of collusion. But they nonetheless fear that the near-daily revelations about the investigation will overtake Trump’s presidency.
“There’s no quarterback. There’s no strategy. They’re literally making it up as they go along,” said one of the people. “We’re in very dangerous territory.”
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
In New York this weekend, where the president headlined three fundraisers, Trump’s tweets were a frequent topic of conversation, with some donors privately raising concerns that the investigation could shift attention from tax reform, according to donors close to the administration.
“As a Trump supporter, I think that the president tweeting about Mueller’s investigation absolutely distracts his administration and the public from the mission at hand, which is to get tax reform done before the end of the year,” said Houston-based energy executive Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. “His tweeting certainly shows he isn’t listening to the advice of counsel, which must be telling him to say nothing publicly or privately.”
Senior White House officials, taking their cues from chief of staff John Kelly, insist that they can’t — and won’t — control what the president does on social media. Asked last week what he does when Trump unleashes provocative tweets, one senior White House official said simply, “Ignore them.”
Another senior administration official said efforts to exert control over Trump’s tweeting were a “lost cause,” adding that aides have also had little success limiting the president’s TV-watching habit. “TV is what it is,” the official said.
Trump’s anger with the Russia investigation is nothing new; he has called it a “witch hunt,” and he insisted as far back as last year that there was no collusion between his team and Moscow.
But Trump’s allies are warning in public and in private that he shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the investigation.
Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a Trump friend who speaks to him frequently, said Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week” that the Mueller investigation “poses an existential threat to the Trump presidency.”
“He thinks there’s nothing to it, and [says that] collusion never took place,” Ruddy, who said he hadn’t spoken to Trump this weekend, said in an email to POLITICO. “I think he’s 100 percent right, there was no collusion. But Mueller is looking for much more than collusion; the indictments and pleas to date demonstrate that.”
White House lawyer Ty Cobb has repeatedly promised the president that Mueller’s investigation will be over soon, a pledge that outside Trump advisers worry is divorced from reality. Nonetheless, Trump has internalized Cobb’s comments, telling friends that he isn’t worried about the probe.
Over the past week, the president made a round of calls to friends and outside advisers in which he insisted that the probe will wrap up quickly, two people familiar with the conversations said.
Trump’s friends and allies have cautioned the president against attacking Flynn and Mueller directly, instead encouraging him to focus on Hillary Clinton, recent erroneous reporting from ABC News’ Brian Ross and the news that an FBI officer working with Mueller was removed after sending anti-Trump text messages.
Indeed, the tone of the president’s tweets shifted over the course of the weekend, from responding to the Flynn developments to raging about Clinton, ABC and the FBI. Ross was suspended after incorrectly reporting that Flynn would testify that then-candidate Trump “directed him to make contact with the Russians.”
“People who lost money when the Stock Market went down 350 points based on the False and Dishonest reporting of Brian Ross of @ABC News (he has been suspended), should consider hiring a lawyer and suing ABC for the damages this bad reporting has caused – many millions of dollars!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
The same day, he shared angry commentary about the FBI’s disciplining of the agent assigned to the Russia probe who had sent the anti-Trump texts and who previously worked on the Clinton email investigation.
“Report: ‘ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE’ Now it all starts to make sense!” Trump tweeted.
But the president also retweeted a tweet from a conservative pundit that called on FBI Director Christopher Wray to “clean house” at the bureau — raising fears that Trump could go on a firing spree that could end in Mueller’s ouster. Many of Trump’s allies believe such a move would have disastrous consequences, further alienating him from Republicans in Congress and damaging his prospects for reelection.
And on Saturday, he sent a missive that he “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” The tweet immediately raised questions about whether Trump knew when he fired Flynn that the then-adviser was lying to the FBI, a revelation that — if true — could greatly raise the stakes in the investigation.
Trump’s aides scrambled to explain the tweet. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, told POLITICO on Sunday that he drafted it, adding that he believed it was posted online by social media director Dan Scavino. Dowd’s confession was met with widespread skepticism from Democrats and some Republicans, who doubted a White House lawyer would craft such a potentially damaging tweet.
Asked whether he believes the tweet could make the president vulnerable in the Mueller probe, Dowd said, “Not at all.”
Some outside lawyers disagreed.
Peter Zeidenberg, who served on the Justice Department’s special prosecution team during the George W. Bush-era Valerie Plame investigation, said Trump’s tweets and public statements “are extremely damaging to him and helpful to Mueller’s team.”
“The toughest thing in bringing an obstruction case is proving the state of mind of the defendant,” Zeidenberg said. “Trump is making their job easy.”
Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.
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