Debate intensified in President Trump’s political circle Tuesday over how aggressively to confront special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, dividing some of the president’s advisers and loyalists as the Russia investigation enters a new phase following charges against three former Trump campaign officials.
Despite his growing frustration with a federal probe he has roundly dismissed, Trump has been cooperating with Mueller and lately has resisted attacking him directly, at the urging of his attorneys inside and outside the White House.
But several prominent Trump allies, including former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, have said they think the president’s posture is too timid. Seeing the investigation as a political threat, they are clamoring for a more combative approach to Mueller that would damage his credibility and effectively kneecap his operation by cutting its funding.
Still, Bannon and others are not advising Trump to fire Mueller, a rash move that the president’s lawyers and political advisers oppose and insist is not under consideration.
Bannon in recent days has spoken with Trump by phone to relay his concerns about the president’s position and to counsel a shift in strategy, according to three people with knowledge of the conversation. The president — so far — has not accepted Bannon’s advice, these people said.
Bannon’s view has been amplified elsewhere on the right, with talk radio and cable news commentators speaking out more forcefully against Mueller and his expanding probe. The Wall Street Journal editorial board has called on Mueller to resign. The Journal is part of News Corp., which is led by Rupert Murdoch, a friend of Trump who speaks privately with the president.
But many people in Trump’s orbit recommend that he stay the course with cooperation — encouraging him to harshly criticize media coverage of the investigation but avoid engaging Mueller.
“I like Steve, but his advice is not always the most helpful,” said Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend and the chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative media outlet. “In this case, whatever Steve says, the president should do the opposite.”
The tensions extend to Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers have mostly split into two camps: those who are wary of weighing in on Mueller’s investigation and those who see it as a prime political target.
Bannon is demanding that GOP leaders move swiftly to end congressional probes into Russian interference, undermine Mueller’s investigation and increase scrutiny on Democratic controversies.
“The Republicans are like church mice,” Bannon said Tuesday. “No support of the president. Totally gutless. The Hill needs to step up.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he believes that Republicans should proceed carefully, and he called Mueller a “very ethical person.”
“I don’t know how you could improve things by interfering,” Grassley said. “The process just ought to go.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a trusted Trump ally, has launched an investigation into an Obama-era uranium deal and is preparing to invite witnesses this week to testify about the FBI’s handling of Russia investigations. Nunes intends to issue subpoenas if people decline to appear, according to people briefed on his plans.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser who praised Mueller earlier this year after his appointment as special counsel, said he has slowly “soured” on the former FBI director and agrees that Congress should put a harsher national spotlight on him.
“Mueller ought to be held accountable,” Gingrich said.
He ticked through a series of what he considers questionable moves by Mueller and his team, including their handling of former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, whom the government described in an indictment unsealed Monday as a “proactive cooperator.”
“Congress should look seriously at whether Mueller put a wire on this guy and sent him around to entrap people,” Gingrich said. “If that happened, Congress better see the full transcripts, not just the FBI’s edited versions. Congress should also ask why they’re raiding [former campaign chairman Paul] Manafort’s home at 5 a.m. for a white-collar crime from a few years ago.”
This sentiment is not heard at the White House, however, where officials have been careful not to antagonize the special counsel.
“Our approach has been to be cooperative and responsive and to see this come to a quick conclusion,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Have we been aggressive in our comments and our feelings towards the Clinton campaign and the DNC? Yes. But that’s where our aggression is seen and nowhere else.”
Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer overseeing Russia matters, said after Monday’s indictments of Manafort and his longtime deputy, Rick Gates, “Nothing about today’s events alters anything related to our engagement with the special counsel, with whom we continue to cooperate.”
Cobb added, “There are no discussions and there is no consideration being given to terminating Mueller.”
Republicans in Congress said Trump is wise to avoid messing with Mueller.
“There would be an uprising at the Capitol like never seen before if any kind of interference looked like it was taking place,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “Regardless of which side of the aisle. That’s just beyond the pale.”
Among Republicans, there is broad agreement to bring attention to past controversies involving Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 election, that have animated hourly discussions on Fox News Channel and conservative talk radio programs.
The White House and allies have waged a public relations battle over the Clinton campaign’s and the Democratic National Committee’s funding of research that resulted in the famous dossier that details Trump’s alleged connections to Russia.
The dossier has become a lightning rod, with congressional Republican leaders trying to discredit Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, and the document’s author, Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer with ties to the U.S. intelligence community.
Republicans also are trying to bring scrutiny to a 2010 uranium deal approved by the Obama administration, while Clinton was secretary of state. The deal — which Trump used as a political cudgel against Clinton during the campaign — allowed a Russian nuclear energy agency to acquire a controlling stake in a Canadian-based company that had mining licenses for about 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity, although the company cannot export uranium.
Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity, a Trump confidant, decried the lack of investigative attention on Clinton, a point the president and his top aides have made in recent days.
“This is not hyperbole,” Hannity said Monday night in his on-air monologue, which the president is known to watch regularly. “I am not overstating the case. We are at a major crisis point in America tonight. Do we have equal justice under the law in this country today?”
Some Republican lawmakers have heeded these calls. House and Senate GOP leaders have announced two investigations into the uranium deal, while at least three congressional committees are continuing to look into how the FBI handled Clinton’s email scandal.
But there appears to be little appetite for legislation that would cut Mueller’s funding or otherwise limit the scope of his investigation, something various Trump allies have suggested is necessary.
“My basic philosophy is, once you have an independent counsel, you ought to give him a chance to follow the facts,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the chairman of the subcommittee that handles the Justice Department’s funding. “If somebody’s doing a job, you don’t want to cut it off.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said: “The idea that Bob Mueller is going to have the scope of his inquiry constrained, or be otherwise restricted, is really out there. I think that’s extremely unlikely.”
Karoun Demirjian and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.