Donald Trump is acting like he feels the walls are closing in.
The President perceives a marauding special counsel, an FBI plot to persecute him and a conspiracy within his own government to unfairly pry deep into his personal confidences held by a cherished confidant and personal attorney.
Aides say he believes he has the right to fire Robert Mueller, is sizing up Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and is fuming behind closed doors while groping for a way out. The President set off new questions about his state of mind and the possibility he was trying to divert attention from his legal woes in a tweet Wednesday in which he taunted Russia over its ability to shoot down US missiles in an apparently looming strike on Syria.
Trump’s tunnel vision about widening legal probes surrounding him and his White House may not reflect reality, or even the views of many supposed allies on Capitol Hill, but it’s a powerful driving force behind his actions, as everyone waits with dread to see what happens next following Monday’s FBI raid targeting his personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
In an early morning tweet Wednesday, the President denied there was a siege mentality in the White House, saying things were “very calm and calculated” and focused on trade with China, his approaching summit with North Korea and the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
But he lashed out at the “never ending and corrupt Russia Investigation, which takes tremendous time and focus. No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back), so now they do the Unthinkable, and RAID a lawyers office for information! BAD!” Trump tweeted.
Deepening the sense of crisis, CNN reported Tuesday that Trump is actively considering dismissing Rosenstein in a bid to constrain Mueller, even though such a move would reignite claims he is bent on obstructing the special counsel’s probe.
If Trump wields the ax against Rosenstein and then goes after Mueller, he would not only ignite a political storm but he also would raise doubts about the capacity of the US system of governance itself to hold a strongman President in check.
Washington on edge
Given those stakes, it’s not surprising that Washington is on edge, even as everyone digests the staggering fact that FBI agents on Monday raided the offices and the residence in New York of Michael Cohen, the personal attorney of the President of the United States.
Cohen answered the door himself at the Loews Regency hotel when FBI agents arrived and had his cellphone confiscated on the spot, CNN’s Erin Burnett and Don Lemon reported.
A source familiar with the raid told CNN that agents also secured Cohen’s computer, business files and financial documents. The source said Cohen kept extensive electronic records.
Trump’s state of mind following the raid was summed up by a single Tuesday morning tweet that read, “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”
Trump has vented many times before at what he sees as the utter injustice of the Mueller probe and at his subordinates, like Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he thinks should be protecting him, not enabling the probe.
But sources inside the White House tell CNN they have never seen the President so furious, and they sense something felt different this time.
Trump’s attitude toward Rosenstein, and the judicial system’s code of internal integrity, seemed certain to take a further poisonous turn with news Tuesday that Geoffrey Berman, the interim US attorney for the Southern District of New York, which oversaw the Cohen raid, had recused himself from the matter.
The decision was Berman’s and was approved by senior Justice Department officials within Rosenstein’s office, a source told CNN’s Laura Jarrett.
Anticipation that something grave is about to happen was meanwhile fueled by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisting that Trump “certainly” believes it is in his power to fire the special counsel.
Investigation out of control?
The President also believes that the search warrant executed against Cohen was a symptom of an investigation raging wildly out of control.
“I think that the President has been clear that he thinks this has gone too far,” Sanders said, implicitly raising the question of what Trump would do to remedy the situation.
On Monday, surrounded by top military brass, Trump fumed that the raid on Cohen’s offices and hotel room exemplified an “attack on our country” and openly toyed with the idea of dismissing the special counsel.
But Mueller followed protocol by referring the Cohen matter to legal authorities in New York and the raid was legally authorized, leaving little basis for Trump’s claims it represented an assault on everything America stood for.
Some GOP senators made clear they didn’t share the President’s view.
“I do feel that the President believes he was violated, but certainly I wouldn’t describe it as an attack on our nation,” Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
While Republican senators, conscious of their delicate political position, are loath to back legislative efforts to shield Mueller, they don’t want him gone.
“I think it would be suicide for the President to fire him,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas warned of “serious repercussions” if Mueller were dismissed.
The White House’s confidence that Trump has every right to fire Mueller triggered alarm among Democrats, who would try to shame Republicans into acting to rein in the President if the special counsel gets the ax.
“The DOJ regulations could not be more clear; the President does not have the authority to remove special counsel Mueller,” said Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“Because of the attorney general’s recusal, only Deputy AG Rosenstein could remove the special counsel, and it would have to be for good cause.”
If the President were to find a way to dismiss Mueller, he would trigger outrage in Washington and present Republicans who control the House with a dilemma about whether to act or to side with constituents who strongly support Trump.
If he just sits tight and waits for the results of the special counsel’s investigation, Trump must watch as his campaign, his presidency and even his personal life and business affairs become fodder for investigators.
It’s no wonder that the President is so sensitive about Cohen. After all, the hard-charging lawyer is virtually family to the President and, as his personal fixer for over a decade, is in a position to know his most private business.
Cohen was behind a $130,000 hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.
FBI agents who raided his offices also sought details of payments made to a former Playboy Playmate, Karen McDougal, and Daniels related to alleged affairs with Trump, CNN reported.