Judging by six sharply worded tweets starting at sunrise on Wednesday, Donald Trump is edging closer to taking irreversible action against a federal investigation that earlier this week sent FBI agents raiding the office of his longtime personal lawyer and trusted lieutenant, Michael Cohen.
By 9am, as well as threatening missile strikes in Syria, Trump had blamed “bad blood with Russia” on the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller, accused Mueller of a conflict of interest and characterized the atmosphere in the White House as “very calm and calculated”.
While scattershot in their targets, the tweets together communicated a sense of heightened agitation that Trump has displayed for three days now, ever since agents seized documents from Cohen including records of six-figure payments made to two women who have claimed to have had affairs with Trump before the 2016 election.
“Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama,” Trump wrote in one tweet, which went on to criticize Mueller and his superior, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who are both in fact Republicans first appointed to federal posts by Republican presidents.
“Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter),” Trump continued. “No Collusion, so they go crazy!”
“Fisa” refers to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which the FBI conducted surveillance during the presidential campaign of a Trump aide with Russia ties. The “Comey letter” refers to a May 2017 letter written by Rosenstein that recommended the firing of the former FBI director James Comey.
The Mueller investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has produced indictments of or pleas from 19 individuals, including Trump’s former campaign chairman and first national security adviser, as well as three companies based in Russia. The prosecutors have not brought any charges specifically related to collusion so far.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday shortly after announcing his retirement, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, said he had “gotten assurances” from “people inside the White House” that Trump would not fire either Mueller or Rosenstein. However, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, refused to address those “assurances”. When asked about them, she tersely said: “I don’t have any personnel announcements.” Sanders had previously made the same statement earlier in the White House briefing when asked if Trump planned to fire Rosenstein.
Speculation that Trump may be nearing action against Mueller was fueled by a New York Times report on Tuesday night saying that Trump had demanded Mueller’s firing as recently as December, only to be dissuaded by the White House counsel and other legal advisers.
Perhaps more significantly, for Trump’s mood, the tweets also followed the publication of the first excerpts from an ABC News interview with James Comey in which the former FBI director reportedly compared Trump to a “mob boss”.
Comey is preparing a media blitz in support of a book to be released next week that he has framed as a showdown with Trump. A source present at the ABC interview told Axios that Comey is “going to shock the president and his team”.
It is not clear that the president could fire Mueller directly, despite a claim on Tuesday by Sanders, that Trump has that power.
The president could, however, assign the task to a justice department official, although several possible candidates, perhaps including Rosenstein, would be likely to resign instead of carrying out the president’s order.
The prospect of firing Mueller was openly mooted on Fox News, which the president watches avidly, in a Tuesday report musing on “what might happen if the president decides to pull the plug” on the special counsel.
“The man who became famous for saying ‘you’re fired’ is facing what could be the most serious and consequential personnel decision of his life tonight,” the report said. Mueller is not a member of White House personnel, but rather a justice department appointment under a 1999 law passed by Congress.
The lawyer who drafted that statute, Neal Katyal, now a professor at Georgetown University, wrote on Tuesday on Twitter that Trump’s firing Mueller “would come at enormous cost, not just to the Justice Department and the Rule of Law, but also to him personally. It should be the end of the Trump presidency.”
Perhaps sensing the danger to their coalition, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have declined to echo Trump’s characterization of the special counsel investigation as a partisan “witch-hunt”.
“It’s still my view that Mueller should be allowed to finish his job,” the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, told the Guardian on Tuesday. “I think that’s the view of most people in Congress.”
As he navigates this sensitive territory, Trump has recently lost the most experienced lawyer advising him on the matter, John Dowd, who resigned from the president’s legal team last month over a disagreement with the Trump about whether he should agree to be interviewed by Mueller.
Trump reportedly favored speaking with Mueller, despite concerns harbored by his counsel that he would make a statement known by Mueller’s team to be false based on the large body of evidence they have collected, which includes interviews, emails sent by the presidential transition team and documents subpoenaed from the Trump Organization.
None of that collection has so exercised the president as much as the raid on the office of Cohen, who for more than a decade has handled particularly sensitive matters for Trump and his children, including prospective real estate developments in Russia.
In addition to documents relating to payments made to women, the raid sought documents pertaining to an Access Hollywood tape that emerged in October 2016 in which Trump boasted he could “grab” women “by the pussy”, the New York Times reported. There have been no previous reports of any Cohen role in the Access Hollywood episode, and the nature of prosecutors’ interest in the affair was unclear.
Trump described a personal fight against Mueller in a tweet that might read differently if the president does in fact remove the special counsel.
“No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back), so now they do the Unthinkable, and RAID a lawyers office for information!” Trump wrote. “BAD!”