By Katie Bo Williams - 07-22-17 12:01 PM EDT
President Trump has launched an all-out assault on the federal investigation into his campaign's ties to Russia, reflecting an intensifying obsession with the probe within the West Wing.
As reports emerged this week that special counsel Robert Mueller has widened his investigation to include the president's business transactions, Trump issued a public warning that such inquiries were a "violation" of the scope of the probe.
In a bombshell interview with The New York Times published Wednesday night, he stopped short of saying that he would fire Mueller if he crossed that line "because I don't think it's going to happen."
But he threatened to expose "many other conflicts" that he believes make Mueller's position at the head of the investigation unethical - a claim that comes on the heels of a round of Sunday show appearances by the president's attorney, Jay Sekulow, suggesting that Mueller's appointment to the post was illegitimate.
Multiple outlets have also reported that Trump's legal team is digging into Mueller's team, looking for alleged conflicts of interest - and discussing the limits of the president's authority to issue pardons.
And on Thursday, the spokesman for Trump's outside legal team, Mark Corallo, reportedly resigned - in partbecause of his discomfort with the president's strategy of attacking Mueller's integrity.
Trump's lawyers have denied that the White House is investigating Mueller's team, but have not denied that they will object if they feel Mueller is straying outside of his mandate.
The feud, so far, appears to be decidedly one-sided. Although a few tidbits have begun to trickle out about the parameters of the investigation, the leaks do not immediately appear to have originated from Mueller's team.
Allies of the president have defended Trump's frustration as legitimate, insisting that it is an appropriate response to the wall-to-wall media coverage of the various Russia investigations.
"There is just an abject frustration within the White House and the president himself on this unrelenting press coverage of this whole Russian thing, much of it based on leaks that are coming out of various departments," Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an early Trump supporter, told The Hill the morning after The Times interview published.
Other Republicans were more muted in their defense of the president. Asked if it would be a mistake to fire Mueller, Senate number-two John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, "I think Mr. Mueller is a well-respected person and he ought to be left to do his job."
Some legal analysts say that the president's team is clearly laying the groundwork to dismiss the special counsel - despite the president's demurral on Wednesday.
"It appears clear that his team is reviewing with him and actively preparing for this possibility," Bob Bauer, former White House Counsel under President Barack Obama, wrote in the national security blog Lawfare.
"This is the one aspect of the interview that could have been intended to serve Trump's legal defense purposes. He is building the case for dismissal with all his claims against Mueller and others of 'conflicts' interest, and he reaffirms in the interview that he has that authority: '[I]t can't be obstruction because you can say: It's ended. It's over. Period.'"
That strategy, analysts say, could work.
Even if Mueller's team conducts its investigation in a manner beyond reproach, the White House will be able to paint the investigation as political. Democrats were able to successfully leverage this strategy in relation to Kenneth Starr's independent counsel investigation into the Clintons in the 1990s.
Others say attacking Mueller and his team could backfire by creating the impression that Trump has something to hide.
"This is not strategy, it's a spasm," Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar and professor at George Washington University law school, told The Hill. "This is a self-defeating tactic. It will achieve nothing but alienating the Justice Department further and creating the appearance of a White House under siege."
Supporters of the president have for weeks pointed to past political donations made by Mueller's team of more than a dozen investigators as evidence that the probe is, as the president calls it, a "witch hunt."
In particular they have pointed to former senior Justice Department official Andrew Weissman, who made thousands of dollars in donations to Democrats, including Obama; and former Justice counsel Jeannie Rhee, who in the past has represented the Clinton Foundation.
"There are some real concerns with Mueller, with the people that he's appointing," Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a Trump backer, told The Hill. "There are some questions there where people are scratching their heads: Why don't we appoint people who are not pro or against, Clinton or Trump. Just look to the facts."
Mueller himself was a registered Republican when he was director of the FBI and has been widely praised as nonpartisan.
The president in his interview also argued that the fact that Mueller had interviewed for the post of FBI director was a conflict of interest. He did not explain how the fact of the interview constituted a conflict.
Sekulow, meanwhile, has said that the circumstances of Mueller's appointment as special counsel make the scope of his investigation inappropriate.
Former FBI director James Comey has testified that he provided the contents of his unclassified memos detailing interactions with the president to The Times through an intermediary, following his own dismissal earlier this year, in an effort to spark the appointment of a special counsel. Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein named Mueller just days after The Times reported the memos.
"So the basis upon which this entire special counsel investigation is taking place is based on what? Illegally leaked information that was a conversation of the president of the United States with the then-FBI director," Sekulow told NBC's Chuck Todd last Sunday.
"And that to me is problematic from the outset. And I think that raises very serious legal issues as to the scope and nature of what really can take place."
Critics of the president say that the White House assault on Mueller constitutes a dangerous breach of the independence of the judiciary.
"An unchecked presidency - such as that of Richard Nixon or Donald Trump - represents a clear and present danger to the Republic," the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees, Reps. Elijah Cummings (Md.) and John Conyers (Mich.) wrote in a Friday op-ed in The Baltimore Sun.
"The next constitutional crisis - the firing of Special Counsel Mueller, perhaps - is not hard to envision."
The deputy attorney general sought to reassure viewers that the Mueller probe will continue independent of the White House in a Fox News appearance earlier this week, but offered a defense of Mueller's staff that critics called lukewarm at best.
Asked whether the fact that some of Mueller's staff had made political donations to Clinton "bothers" him, Rosenstein replied:
"The Department of Justice, we judge by results. And so my view about that is, we'll see if they do the right thing."
Scott Wong, Jordain Carney and Morgan Chalfant contributed.