WASHINGTON — As federal prosecutors in Manhattan gathered evidence late last year about President Trump’s role in silencing women with hush payments during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called Matthew G. Whitaker, his newly installed attorney general, with a question. He asked whether Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the widening investigation, according to several American officials with direct knowledge of the call.
Mr. Whitaker, who had privately told associates that part of his role at the Justice Department was to “jump on a grenade” for the president, knew he could not put Mr. Berman in charge, since Mr. Berman had already recused himself from the investigation. The president soon soured on Mr. Whitaker, as he often does with his aides, and complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.
Trying to install a perceived loyalist atop a widening inquiry is a familiar tactic for Mr. Trump, who has been struggling to beat back the investigations that have consumed his presidency. His efforts have exposed him to accusations of obstruction of justice as Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, finishes his work investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mr. Trump’s public war on the inquiry has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking. Mr. Trump rages almost daily to his 58 million Twitter followers that Mr. Mueller is on a “witch hunt” and has adopted the language of Mafia bosses by calling those who cooperate with the special counsel “rats.” His lawyer talks openly about a strategy to smear and discredit the special counsel investigation. The president’s allies in Congress and the conservative media warn of an insidious plot inside the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to subvert a democratically elected president.
An examination by The New York Times reveals the extent of an even more sustained, more secretive assault by Mr. Trump on the machinery of federal law enforcement. Interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to Mr. Trump, as well as a review of confidential White House documents, reveal numerous unreported episodes in a two-year drama.
White House lawyers wrote a confidential memo expressing concern about the president’s staff peddling misleading information in public about the firing of Michael T. Flynn, the Trump administration’s first national security adviser. Mr. Trump had private conversations with Republican lawmakers about a campaign to attack the Mueller investigation. And, there was the episode when he asked his attorney general about putting Mr. Berman in charge of the Manhattan investigation.
Mr. Whitaker, who earlier this month told a congressional committee that Mr. Trump had never pressured him over the various investigations, is now under scrutiny by House Democrats for possible perjury.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that the White House had not asked Mr. Whitaker to interfere in the investigations. “Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’” said the spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”
The White House declined to comment for this article.
The story of Mr. Trump’s attempts to defang the investigations has been voluminously covered in the news media, to such a degree that many Americans have lost track of how unusual his behavior is. But fusing the strands reveals an extraordinary story of a president who has attacked the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history, and who has turned the effort into an obsession. Mr. Trump has done it with the same tactics he once used in his business empire: demanding fierce loyalty from employees, applying pressure tactics to keep people in line, and protecting the brand — himself — at all costs.
It is a public relations strategy as much as a legal strategy — a campaign to create a narrative of a president hounded by his “deep state” foes. The new Democratic majority in the House, and the prospect of a wave of investigations on Capitol Hill this year, will test whether the strategy shores up Mr. Trump’s political support or puts his presidency in greater peril. The president has spent much of his time venting publicly about there being “no collusion” with Russia before the 2016 election, which has diverted attention from a growing body of evidence that he has tried to impede the various investigations.
Julie O’Sullivan, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University, said she believed there was ample public evidence that Mr. Trump had the “corrupt intent” to try to derail the Mueller investigation, the legal standard for an obstruction of justice case.
But this is far from a routine criminal investigation, she said, and Mr. Mueller will have to make judgments about the impact on the country of making a criminal case against the president. Democrats in the House have said they will wait for Mr. Mueller to finish his work before making a decision about whether the president’s behavior warrants impeachment.
In addition to the Mueller investigation, there are at least two other federal inquiries that touch the president and his advisers — the Manhattan investigation focused on the hush money payments made by Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, and an inquiry examining the flow of foreign money to the Trump inaugural committee.
The president’s defenders counter that most of Mr. Trump’s actions under scrutiny fall under his authority as the head of the executive branch. They argue that the Constitution gives the president sweeping powers to hire and fire, to start and stop law enforcement proceedings, and to grant presidential pardons to friends and allies. A sitting American president cannot be indicted, according to current Justice Department policy.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers add this novel response: the president has been public about his disdain for the Mueller investigation and other federal inquiries, so he is hardly engaged in a conspiracy. He fired one F.B.I. director and considered firing his replacement. He humiliated his first attorney general for being unable to “control” the Russia investigation and installed a replacement, Mr. Whitaker, who has told people he believed his job was to protect the president. But that, they say, is Donald Trump being Donald Trump.
In other words, the president’s brazen public behavior might be his best defense. Finish here: Intimidation, Pressure and Humiliation: Inside Trump’s Two-Year War on the Investigations Encircling Him