Frustrated and impatient, fed up with waiting and eager to fight back, President Donald Trump has embarked on what amounts to a two-prong strategy to contain the threat and undercut the credibility of the escalating investigations targeting him and his associates.
The blizzard of Twitter messages combined with a string of public statements by his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in recent days seemed aimed at turning the focus away from the conduct of the president or his team to that of their pursuers while laying out a series of red lines to limit the reach and duration of the primary inquiry.
“I think we’re finally seeing some semblance of a strategy emerge,” said Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor emeritus who speaks with the president from time to time but has declined to join his legal team. “They have now decided that they need to be more proactive, more aggressive and more anticipatory and I see that happening.”
Trump’s latest assertion of bad faith by the Justice Department and FBI resulted in an extraordinary meeting at the White House on Monday where the president pressured intelligence and law enforcement officials to allow congressional Republicans to view highly classified information related to the Russia investigation that they had refused to divulge.
The president has seized on reports that the FBI sent an informant to talk to three of his advisers during the 2016 presidential election and contended that that meant his campaign was infiltrated for political purposes. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has resisted past pressure from Trump to open or close politically charged inquiries, agreed in this case to request that the department’s inspector general investigate the investigators.
At the same time, Giuliani, the former New York mayor, in recent days has publicly outlined limits for the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Giuliani said that any interview of Trump by prosecutors could last no more than two hours, that Mueller had accepted the view that he does not have the power to indict a sitting president and that Mueller hopes to wrap up the obstruction of justice part of his investigation by Sept. 1.
Mueller has agreed to none of those publicly and in the weeks since Giuliani began representing Trump, the former mayor has contradicted himself and the president on several occasions, so it is not known whether he reflects the special counsel’s views. But in drawing these lines, analysts said, Giuliani may be signaling to Mueller the outer boundaries of the president’s tolerance or even laying a predicate for later firing the special counsel.
In an interview Monday, Giuliani said the goal was not to undercut the investigators, but to shed light on their conduct. “I don’t think we put them on the defensive,” he said. “I think the revelations have put them on the defensive.”
Giuliani emphasized that the latest questions did not implicate Mueller since he was appointed last May, long after the original investigation was opened.
“Everything that we’ve heard so far involves questionable practices by the Justice Department or the FBI in utilizing this informant, not revealing earlier what this informant found or didn’t find,” he said. “I guess it’s a problem that Mueller inherits, but he didn’t create it.”
Still, he said the accumulation of questions Republicans have raised about the origins of the investigation has bolstered his view that it should be shut down.
“I’ve thought that for a while,” he said. “There seems to be more facts leading to that conclusion. But let’s see what Horowitz comes up with,” he added, referring to Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general. “He’s very good. I’m very comfortable with him doing it because I think he’ll do it very even-handedly.”
Giuliani’s deference to Mueller has not been shared by Trump, who again accused the special counsel of running an office filled with partisan Democrats with conflicts of interest. But both Trump and Giuliani share a favorite target in James B. Comey, the former FBI director fired by the president last year and now one of his most outspoken critics as well as a potential witness against him.
In some ways, that mirrors approaches taken by other politicians who came under fire, including Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton. During Watergate, Nixon’s team dismissed allegations against him as trumped up by a hostile establishment, especially the media. During the investigation into whether he lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s team repeatedly assailed the independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, and attributed the investigation to what Hillary Clinton called a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Trump, however, is willing to go further in public than either of those presidents in pressing the law enforcement agencies that report to him to start or end politically charged investigations. And he has more tools to define the narrative the way he sees it. Neither Nixon nor Clinton had Twitter to spread the word, nor did they have the same extent of ideologically sympathetic media to echo their viewpoints the way Trump has Fox News and Breitbart News, among others.
“This is an effort by the president to distract from his legal troubles and throw as much mud into the air as he can,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “But it’s doing enormous damage to the Justice Department. If they think they can placate him, they’ll probably find that doesn’t work. That doesn’t placate a bully.”
James R. Clapper Jr., who was director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, said Trump is trying to distort standard investigatory practices to insinuate wrongdoing.
“I didn’t know about this informant,” said Clapper, whose memoir, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence,” will be published Tuesday. “No one in the White House knew. Certainly the president didn’t know. This is a routine thing that goes on all the time. We’re making a huge mountain out of a molehill. The purpose was to understand what the Russians were doing.”
Trump has maintained from the beginning that the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election was a “witch hunt” inspired by Democrats who paid for research used to justify the inquiry.
But he has recently parted ways with lawyers who urged him not to attack Mueller and assured him that cooperation would ultimately exonerate him. In their place now is Giuliani and the guns blazing approach that suits Trump.
Robert F. Bauer, a former White House counsel in the Obama administration who now teaches law at New York University, said part of the audience for Giuliani’s public blasts may be Trump, to assuage the president that someone is fighting for him. “The other audience for this of course is the political world that he needs to satisfy that he’s not in trouble, that he’s not going to be bullied,” Bauer said.
Dershowitz said the president’s new White House special counsel, Emmet T. Flood, is “working the inside game” and gaming out the legal questions confronting Trump while Giuliani is laying the public ground for a confrontation if the inside game does not work.
“He has Rudy Giuliani out there in some senses preparing for a worst-case scenario in which he has to try to delegitimate the investigation at least among his base and make it into a red-blue issue,” Dershowitz said. “If he can make it a red-blue issue, he wins because Americans don’t want to see a president impeached based on partisanship.”