President Donald Trump increasingly believes that he is surrounded by enemies intent on his political destruction.
The battle lines, as he sees them, are numerous, spanning from the halls of Congress to the courtroom to the evening news. And, more than any time prior in his presidency, he seems prepared to go on the counterattack, with a mix of bare-knuckled politics and legal maneuvering, including the contemplation of filing lawsuits.
The foremost threat is from the team of investigators being led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s team appears to be laying the groundwork for allegations that Mueller has acted improperly, with malice toward the president, and even in violation of the law himself. Though Trump himself denied on Sunday that he is thinking of firing Mueller, efforts to undermine the special counsel appear underfoot.
The latest datapoint came by way of a pair of press leaks. Sources on Trump’s transition team told Axios on Saturday that Mueller had obtained thousands of emails from officials on that team, including embarrassing and potentially incriminating messages between senior transition aides.
Hours after the Axios story dropped, the transition team leaked a letter to Fox News in which it accused Mueller of illegally obtaining those emails.
The General Services Administration, from which Mueller obtained them, and the Office of Special Counsel have both disputed that claim. And legal scholars have sided with Mueller in this dispute. But the pair of transition leaks demonstrate that Team Trump’s legal strategy is increasingly turning to methods of preemptively discrediting Mueller. Trump has publicly demanded that the special counsel’s investigation wrap up by year’s end, and those close to him say the president will be furious if that dubious, if not artificial, timeline is not met.
But Trump’s fury isn’t just directed inside the boundaries of government.
Trump also increasingly considers the political press an explicit foe—or an “enemy of the people,” as he’s put it. And according to knowledgeable sources, the president is growing more prone toward musings about potentially using the legal system to go after those journalists he deems hostile.
In the aftermath of highly publicized errors in recent reporting by CNN and ABC News on the Mueller investigation, Trump has privately told associates how satisfying and “great” it would be to sue journalists—ABC’s Brian Ross in particular for erroneously reporting that Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn reached out to Russian officials during the campaign—whom he believes intentionally spread lies and “fake news” about him and his team, according to two sources close to the president.
Trump has threatened numerous lawsuits against adversarial reporters over the years and has only occasionally followed through. The latest missive struck allies and advisers as a revival of his campaign-trail fantasizing about opening up and weaponizing libel laws and not a genuine statement of intent to do so.
Nevertheless, Trump’s pique toward both the length of the Russia investigation and the media’s reporting on it reflects a larger sense of frustration he feels about being politically hamstrung even while occupying the world’s most powerful office.
Trump has taken keen note of recent revelations that top FBI officials on the investigation sent cryptic notes to each other last year about an “insurance policy” in the event of his win. Shortly after that story broke, he began repeatedly asking those around him if they had seen it, according to White House sources. “He sees that story as a smoking gun,” one senior official said, noting that Trump has voraciously consumed Fox News coverage of supposed scandal, and that it has helped fuel his recent anti-FBI animus and suspicions.
For its part, Fox has gleefully stoked that perception. When weekend anchor Jesse Watters interviewed White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Saturday about the recently revealed text messages between those FBI officials, the chyron below Conway read, “A COUP IN AMERICA?”
Top congressional Democrats, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), believe that frustration may soon boil over in the form of a Mueller firing or an early end to congressional inquiries. A source with knowledge of the House Intelligence Committee investigation told The Daily Beast that—rather conspicuously—no interviews have been scheduled after this coming week and that no voluntary requests for new documents or interviews have been made in weeks, despite dozens of requests for additional witnesses and documents, some of which have lingered for weeks or months.
House Republicans have not entirely dismissed the idea of ending their chamber’s probe at year’s end. White House lawyers have more forcefully rejected theories about Mueller’s impending demise.
“As the White House has consistently said for months, there is no consideration of firing the special counsel,” attorney Ty Cobb said on Saturday. Those around the president have consistently warned him against sacking Mueller, and Trump reiterated that he had no plans to do so in remarks to reporters on Sunday evening. Reached for comment on Sunday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on Trump’s views on Ross’ reporting and the controversial texts from Mueller investigators, saying both have previously been addressed.
But Trump allies continue to beat that drum, even as they say Mueller probably isn’t going anywhere. Asked whether he thought the president would fire the special counsel, Michael Caputo, a former senior Trump campaign aide, told The Daily Beast, “No, but Director Mueller better get his attack dogs under control.”
“They seem headed for the same arrogant overreach and persecution, this time politically motivated,” Caputo added.
If the president were to seek Mueller’s ouster, he would need to enlist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to do so. Though technically a subordinate of the president, Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee last week that he would not fire the special counsel absent cause, and that he had not seen cause to do so thus far.
That hasn’t allayed the fears of Democrats both on the Hill and off of it. Liberal activist group MoveOn.org is already planning for snap rallies in the event that the special counsel is sacked.
Even more sober voices appear to be caught up in the potential fallout. “This weekend I’m stocking up on portable phone chargers, warm clothes, & gear needed for when we take the streets,” wrote Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, announcing his participation in MoveOn.org’s rallies.
“I’m concerned the assault on the rule of law is coming over the holidays when we’re distracted,” Shaub wrote on Twitter. “It’ll be a defining moment for the Republic.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein