On Wednesday at 12:16 p.m. ET, ABC News tweeted out this quote from Ty Cobb, one of the lead lawyers on President Donald Trump’s legal team, about the possibility of the president sitting down for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller: “It’s certainly not off the table and people are working hard to make decisions and work towards an interview.”
Less than 45 minutes later, Cobb was gone – “retiring” from the president’s legal team.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that “for several weeks Ty Cobb has been discussing his retirement and last week he let Chief of Staff Kelly know he would retire at the end of this month.”
Cobb himself told CNN’s Jim Acosta that he was leaving because his work was done. “I’ve done what I came to do in terms of managing the White House response to the special counsel requests,” said Cobb.
The timing of those twin pronouncements was almost assuredly coincidental. It’s hard to imagine the White House would make a decision to part ways with Cobb less than an hour after he floated the possibility of Trump sitting down with Mueller.
But, there’s little doubt that the sentiment Cobb expressed to ABC is one he’s expressed to the President and his advisers in private before. That sitting down with Mueller might be the best option for Trump because of how bad, politically speaking, not sitting down with the special counsel would be.
Cobb’s departure comes as Trump himself has seemed to sour on the prospect of an extended interview with Mueller. That souring has coincided with contentious conversations between the special counsel and Trump’s legal team in which the possibility of Mueller subpoenaing Trump to testify was broached. It also comes as the more than 4 dozen questions Mueller wants to query Trump about were leaked to the New York Times.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Bob Costa, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a recent addition to Trump’s legal team, suggested that a sitdown with Mueller was still a possibility – but with certain conditions.
“Some people have talked about a possible 12-hour interview,” Giuliani told Costa. “If it happens, that’s not going to happen, I’ll tell you that. It’d be, max, two to three hours around a narrow set of questions.”
Giuliani also told Costa that Jay Sekulow, another member of Trump’s legal team, wanted someone “more aggressive” when it came to negotiating an interview (or deciding not to do one) with Mueller.
Cobb’s departure is the latest in a slew of changes in Trump’s legal team, a changing cast of characters that, taken in total, suggest that Trump has decided that the right strategy is to go after Mueller (and the special counsel probe) publicly in hopes of disqualifying whatever conclusions the investigation eventually produces. Both John Dowd, who left the team in March, and Cobb were advocates to avoid directly attacking Mueller or the probe. Both are now gone.
In their place are Giuliani, a longtime Trump friend, and Emmet Flood, a lawyer who represented then President Bill Clinton during the impeachment proceedings against him in the late 1990s.
Trump appears to be buckling down for the possibility of a protracted legal and political fight with Mueller over the Russia investigation. Trump is hiring lawyers experienced with aggressive confrontations – and adding people with years of experience in the spin games of cable TV.
That change in approach by Trump – which has been happening for at least the last month – suggests he has decided to disregard once and for all the idea put forward by the likes of Dowd and Cobb that if he simply played nice with Mueller this would all be over sooner rather than later.
With Mueller on Tuesday asking for a two-month extension before sentencing for former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, the message is sent: This probe isn’t over – or even close.
Trump’s got that message now. And he’s bracing for a battle.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Make that if it gets better.