The White House is adopting a ‘shrugged shoulders’ strategy to Mueller’s Russia probe, calculating that GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.
A growing number of Republicans fear that a battery of new revelations in the far-reaching Russia investigation has dramatically heightened the legal and political danger to Donald Trump’s presidency — and threatens to consume the rest of the party, as well.
President Trump added to the tumult Saturday by announcing the abrupt exit of his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, whom he sees as lacking the political judgment and finesse to steer the White House through the treacherous months to come.
Trump remains headstrong in his belief that he can outsmart adversaries and weather any threats, according to advisers. In the Russia probe, he continues to roar denials, dubiously proclaiming that the latest allegations of wrongdoing by his former associates “totally clear” him.
But anxiety is spiking among Republican allies, who complain that Trump and the White House have no real plan for dealing with the Russia crisis while confronting a host of other troubles at home and abroad.
Facing the dawn of his third year in office and his bid for reelection, Trump is stepping into a political hailstorm. Democrats are preparing to seize control of the House in January with subpoena power to investigate corruption. Global markets are reeling from his trade war. The United States is isolated from its traditional partners. The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference is intensifying. And court filings Friday in a separate federal case implicated Trump in a felony.
The White House is adopting what one official termed a “shrugged shoulders” strategy for the Mueller findings, calculating that most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.
But some allies fret that the president’s coalition could crack apart under the growing pressure. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump strategist who helped him navigate the most arduous phase of his 2016 campaign, predicted 2019 would be a year of “siege warfare” and cast the president’s inner circle as naively optimistic and unsophisticated.
“The Democrats are going to weaponize the Mueller report and the president needs a team that can go to the mattresses,” Bannon said. “The president can’t trust the GOP to be there when it counts . . . They don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to stand with Trump.”
This portrait of the Trump White House at a precarious juncture is based on interviews with 14 administration officials, presidential confidants and allies, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss private exchanges.
Rather than building a war room to manage the intersecting crises as past administrations have done, the Trump White House is understaffed, stuck in a bunker mentality and largely resigned to a plan to wing it. Political and communications operatives are mostly taking their cues from the president and letting him drive the message with his spontaneous broadsides.
“A war room? You serious?” one former White House official said when asked about internal preparations. “They’ve never had one, will never have one. They don’t know how to do one.”
Trump’s decision to change his chief of staff, however, appears to be a recognition that he needs a strong political team in place for the remainder of his first term. The leading candidate for the job is Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff and an experienced campaign operative known for his political acumen and deep network in the party.
Throughout the 18-month special counsel investigation, Trump has single-handedly spun his own deceptive reality, seeking to sully the reputations of Mueller’s operation and federal law enforcement in an attempt to preemptively discredit their eventual conclusions.
The president has been telling friends that he believes the special counsel is flailing and has found nothing meaningful. “It’s all games and trying to connect dots that don’t really make sense,” one friend said in describing Trump’s view of Mueller’s progress. “Trump is angry, but he’s not really worried.”
But Mueller’s latest court filings offer new evidence of Russian efforts to forge a political alliance with Trump before he became president and detail the extent to which his former aides are cooperating with prosecutors.
Some GOP senators were particularly shaken by this week’s revelation that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had met with Mueller’s team 19 separate times — a distressing signal to them that the probe may be more serious than they had been led to assume, according to senior Republican officials.
Even in the friendliest quarters, there are fresh hints of trouble. Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, a reliable prime-time booster of the president, faulted Trump in an interview this week for failing to keep his main campaign promises, understand the legislative process and learn how to govern effectively.
For now, Republicans on Capitol Hill are still inclined to stand by Trump and give the president the benefit of the doubt. But one pro-Trump senator said privately that a breaking point would be if Mueller documents conspiracy with Russians.
“Then they’ve lost me,” said the senator, noting that several Republican lawmakers have been willing to publicly break with Trump when they believe it is in their interests — as many did over Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), an outspoken Trump critic and a frequent subject of his ire, said, “The president’s situation is fraught with mounting peril, and that’s apparent to everyone who’s paying any attention, which is all of my Republican colleagues.”
Another possible breaking point could come if Trump pardons his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who has elicited the president’s sympathy as he sits in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison following the collapse of his plea agreement with Mueller’s team, White House aides and Republican lawmakers said. Trump advisers said they understand that a pardon of Manafort could be difficult to defend and could prompt rebukes from Republican allies.
The special counsel on Friday accused Manafort of telling “multiple discernible lies” during interviews with prosecutors. Manafort was convicted of tax and bank fraud and has pleaded guilty to additional charges, including conspiring to defraud the United States by hiding years of income and failing to disclose lobbying work for a pro-Russian political party and politician in Ukraine.
Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, is bracing not only for new Mueller developments but also for an onslaught of congressional requests. New White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his associate, Emmet T. Flood, are the leaders inside, although both have taken pains to stay out of the spotlight.
Cipollone has been scouring the résumés of congressional Republican staffers with experience handling investigations and trying to recruit them to the White House, officials said. Meanwhile, Flood, who advised former president Bill Clinton during his impeachment, has been prepping for months to forcefully exert executive privilege once House Democrats assume… Contniued: ‘Siege warfare’: Republican anxiety spikes as Trump faces growing legal and political perils