Steve Bannon spoke on the phone with his old boss, Donald Trump, on Monday and offered a message: get yourself some new lawyers.
The former White House chief strategist has grown increasingly concerned that the president’s legal team is falling down on the job, proving too accommodating to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and leaving Trump vulnerable as former campaign aides are handed indictments.
“In terms of Steve’s thinking of how the president is handling this, yeah, he thinks the legal team was not prepared for what happened today—they’re not serving the president well,” a source close to Bannon said.
Added another confidant: Bannon believes Ty Cobb and John Dowd, the top two attorneys on the president’s legal team, “are asleep at the wheel.”
Bannon talked to Trump after those indictments were issued on Monday to express these concerns directly. Two sources, one working inside and one outside the White House, with knowledge of the conversation told The Daily Beast that Bannon advised Trump not to demote Dowd and Cobb, but to bring in new lawyers to work over them, in the hopes that fresh blood would bring an order and "ruthlessness" to Trump's legal team that Bannon sees as desperately incompetent.
Cobb and Dowd have publicly feuded over White House legal strategy after joining the president’s team, arguing in particular over the degree to which that team should cooperate with Mueller’s investigation. They’ve been overheard doing so at a steakhouse in D.C., while Cobb has been fooled by an email prankster and has angrily lashed out at reporters.
Trump was receptive to Bannon’s plea and expressed dismay and frustration at the state of his legal team and the ongoing Russia probes. However, it was not clear if the president was committing to any sweeping changes to his team of lawyers at this time.
As the president decides what next to do, Bannon is looking to take matters into his own hand—all in an attempt, he believes, to spare Trump from having to fire the man investigating his campaign and family’s finances.
Multiple sources close to Bannon told The Daily Beast on Monday that he is “advocating a much more aggressive legal approach short of firing Mueller,” as one source put it, and has been mulling options that would effectively curtail the special counsel’s investigation into 2016 Russian election-meddling and alleged Trump campaign connections to it.
He’s being tight-lipped about the strategy so far—and it is unclear how robust an effort he’ll actually try to mount—but options are available to him.
One potential avenue is legislation crafted by Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican and member of the House Freedom Caucus, an influential bloc of conservative lawmakers. DeSantis offered an amendment to a House spending package in August that would have barred Mueller from pursuing criminal charges for any conduct occurring before March 2015. That would have severely complicated Mueller’s indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, which rely in large part on alleged criminal conduct prior to the 2016 presidential campaign, when the two lobbied on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
DeSantis’s amendment would also have given Mueller six months to wrap up his investigation before the special counsel’s office was completely defunded.
A spokesperson for the congressman did not return a request for comment as to whether Bannon had been in touch with their office.
The White House has insisted that Trump has no plans to fire Mueller despite a pair of indictments handed down against former campaign chairman Manafort, and Manafort’s deputy Gates. A federal court on Monday also unsealed a guilty plea by former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, who admitted to soliciting damaging information about Hillary Clinton last year from individuals who he believed had ties to high level Russian government officials, including President Vladimir Putin.
While DeSantis has an amendment to curtail the special counsel’s purview, it’s not clear how widespread support for doing so is among even Republicans on Capitol Hill. Many, in fact, have expressed reluctance to interfere. Bannon and his allies would have an uphill battle ahead of them, as numerous GOP officials are also on record having praised Mueller’s integrity and capabilities.
Bannon, incidentally, shares some of those views. Though he is considering ways to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation, he has also been privately praising and expressing respect for the special prosecutor and his team’s qualifications, calling them “serious guys” who should not be underestimated.
Trump’s former top strategist still talks regularly with the president on the phone. But he’s also been confiding in allies that some of the president’s behavior has been counterproductive, perhaps even legally so, in the face of the ongoing Russia-related investigations.
“[Bannon] doesn’t think the tweets are very helpful,” one source bluntly noted, citing Bannon’s private criticisms of the president’s habitual hate-tweeting, particular when the news cycle becomes Trump-Russia heavy.
“I thought these [tweets] were supposed to stop after I left the White House,” Bannon has joked to his allies, according to a close associate.
Monday morning brought no relief for the former White House strategist.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” Trump rage-tweeted. “....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
—With additional reporting by Sam Stein