Facing the possible completion of a special counsel investigation that could upend his presidency, Donald Trump is lashing out at everything and everybody — except his new attorney general, Bill Barr.
Trump, who publicly filleted Jeff Sessions for more than a year, has adopted a noticeably friendly tone toward Barr, even as the newly sworn-in attorney general prepares to face the biggest test of his career: the culmination of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. The approach comes as Trump’s inner circle is signaling that they believe the special counsel has essentially completed his work.
“He’s a tremendous man and tremendous person who really respects this country and respects the justice system. So that’ll be totally up to him,” Trump said in the Oval Office Wednesday when asked about a new CNN report that Barr is preparing to announce the completion of Mueller’s work as soon as next week.
Last week, at the close of meandering remarks in the Rose Garden, Trump similarly praised Barr. “I want to wish our attorney general great luck and speed — and enjoy your life,” the president declared.
And notably, Trump didn’t take the bait when Barr praised outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just one day after Trump debased Rosenstein, accusing him of being part of a rogue, lawless group within the Justice Department.
The president’s efforts to play nice with Barr stand in contrast to his ever-growing list of grievances, which piled up on Twitter again this week. Trump called The New York Times the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,” he picked a fight with The Washington Post’s fact checker, he called on California to return federal money it spent on the state’s high-speed rail network and he bashed the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Wednesday, he called former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe “a poor man’s J. Edgar Hoover,” referring to the controversial first FBI director, in the latest escalation of his offensive against McCabe, whose book has yielded wall-to-wall cable news coverage.
“I think Andrew McCabe has made a fool out of himself over the last couple of days,” Trump said.
A number of reports have also detailed Trump’s mounting frustrations with intelligence chief Dan Coats following a congressional appearance in which Coats countered Trump’s frequent boasts about North Korean negotiations and defeating ISIS.
Trump has been obsessing over the Mueller investigation in public and in private since it began in May 2017, and he has grown sensitive to any implication that he could be implicated in the special counsel’s final report. The president’s lawyers have also been clamoring for the Mueller investigation to end for as long as there’s been a Mueller investigation, with the White House and the president’s personal lawyers incorrectly predicting its conclusion on numerous occasions.
They’re hoping this time is different.
“As far as I can tell the investigation is over,” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told POLITICO last Friday. “They’ve gotten everything they’re going to get. There’s nothing hanging out there that is big where they haven’t gotten the information, gotten the answers, gotten the documents. We satisfied the document requests a long time ago. It’s all there for them to make a decision.”
As for Mueller’s timing, Giuliani said he didn’t want to ascribe any significance to Barr’s arrival and the larger transition in leadership atop DOJ as Rosenstein readies to leave the government in March.
“You can’t read anything into that other than the fact that I think it will run its course and they’ll present whatever they have to the Justice Department,” Giuliani said.
Mueller’s office and DOJ declined to comment on the timing of the probe.
Under the Clinton-era DOJ guidelines Mueller is operating from, the special counsel must submit a report to the attorney general when his probe is complete spelling out who he’s prosecuted and who he declined to prosecute.
As Trump noted on Wednesday, it’s the attorney general’s decision from there as to what he wants to make public. Barr said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he would likely allow a summary but not the entire report. He added that he would make his version as thorough as possible under the law but would not commit to sharing Mueller’s report in its entirety.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from combatting the probe at almost every turn. A Tuesday New York Times report detailed two years of presidential efforts to “defang” the various investigations encircling him. In one noticeable instance, Trump leaned on acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to put a Trump-appointed official in charge of a New York-based federal investigation into hush money payments made during the campaign to women who claimed to have had sex with Trump.
The story set Trump off.
“The Press has never been more dishonest than it is today. Stories are written that have absolutely no basis in fact. The writers don’t even call asking for verification. They are totally out of control,” Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday. The Times says its reporters gave the White House five days to respond to its story.
Trump has continued to unleash a torrent of disdain toward Mueller and his investigation, which he portrays as a partisan character assassination. “The Mueller investigation is totally conflicted, illegal and rigged! Should never have been allowed to begin, except for the Collusion and many crimes committed by the Democrats. Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
But inside the White House, many staffers have grown numb to the flood of Mueller-related news, believing that they have little choice but to ignore the ever-present headlines and cable news chyrons and focus on their jobs.
Speculation over when Mueller will finish his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election has only increased as hints of an upcoming conclusion have surfaced recently. Late last month, the acting attorney general at the time, Matthew Whitaker, told reporters that the investigation would come to a close soon. CNN reported Wednesday that the finished report could be announced as early as next week. Trump will be in Vietnam next week for a second summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Trump officials aren’t sure what will happen after Mueller notifies Barr that his work is done. While there have been more than 20 other special counsels in the post-Watergate era, no one has been assigned the job of investigating a president and his winning campaign for everything from collusion with a foreign power to obstruction of justice in a bid to halt the underlying investigation.
Aides acknowledge the handoff is uncharted territory, and it’s far from clear how the sequence will play out to notify Trump, his legal team and its staff when the probe is finished.
The attorney general could conceivably notify anyone from senior White House aides — chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, White House counsel Pat Cipollone or his deputy, Emmet Flood — or the president himself. Giuliani said it’s possible Mueller could turn in his findings without getting any heads up.
“I don’t expect to be notified when they do whatever they have to do with the Justice Department,” he said. “I expect to be notified either when the DOJ makes their decision or when the DOJ wants to publish something so we can look it over to see if we have executive privilege issues.”
People close to the president have begun privately wondering how long Barr can stay in Trump’s good graces, especially if sensitive details of the Mueller report are leaked to the press.
Barr has made it clear that he wants to be independent from the White House. During his confirmation hearing, Barr said he would allow Mueller to complete his work and said he wouldn’t follow through with a directive to fire Mueller without cause.
It’s also not clear that Mueller is indeed on the cusp of closing up shop on his probe that has snagged guilty pleas from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates; former national security adviser Michael Flynn; and former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Most recently, Mueller brought charges against longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, with a high-profile criminal trial in Washington, D.C., possible later this summer or fall.
Mueller has taken steps to hand off some of his caseload to federal prosecutors. But there are other competing signs that suggest the special counsel still has work to do: Mueller’s office has confirmed it’s locked in a mysterious Supreme Court battle over a subpoena involving a company owned by a foreign country; FBI agents collected reams of evidence and potential leads when it executed a search warrant on Stone’s home and office late last month; and multiple congressional committees have referred interview transcripts to the special counsel for review for potential perjury charges.
“When it comes to all things Mueller, the number of experts on tasseography is stunning,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Virginia.
“I thought the once popular practice of reading tea leaves ended after the Victorian Era,” he added. “For me, I like to flip a coin for the answer to whether Mueller is ending. At least I have a fifty percent chance of being correct. My coin tells me that Mueller is far from done.”