(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past month or two, President Trump had been unusually quiet about the investigation he once described as a cloud hanging over his presidency. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III pressed forward with his work, examining possible links between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian election interference efforts (with a focus, it seems, on longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and WikiLeaks). But Trump did not talk much about that, instead focusing on the midterm elections. In part, that may have been because Mueller and his investigators were expected not to take any actions that would make waves before the elections.

The results in, that assumed prohibition no longer stands. The midterms went poorly for Trump, and, the day after voting ended, he began targeting Mueller again. Citing exit polling, Trump asserted more people disapproved of the investigation than approved.

“They are finally beginning to understand what a disgusting Witch Hunt, led by 17 Angry Democrats, is all about!” he wrote.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

That was just the beginning. Within hours, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man he blamed for not exercising control over Mueller’s probe. (Technically, Trump asked Sessions to resign, and Sessions did.) Sessions’s recusal from the investigation — spurred by a recommendation from Justice Department lawyers, given Sessions’s role in the 2016 campaign — was frequently cited by Trump as a mistake and a betrayal. Trump obviously wanted someone to steer Mueller in a different direction, and Sessions had taken his hands off the wheel.

In Sessions’s place, Trump installed Matthew G. Whitaker, someone who had been hired to serve as Sessions’s chief of staff only after he had repeatedly appeared on television disparaging the Mueller probe. There are legal reasons Whitaker might not be allowed to oversee the investigation, which Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein turned over to his new boss last week. But allies of Whitaker’s told The Washington Post he intended to maintain control of it.

On Thursday, Trump again revisited the Mueller question, offering a flurry of criticisms about how the investigation is being handled. "The inner workings of the Mueller investigation are a total mess. They have found no collusion and have gone absolutely nuts,” he wrote in one tweet. “They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want.” It was a “witch hunt like no other in American history,” he wrote — but his was in all capital letters. In another tweet, he offered a brief summary of his alternative theory of where culpability lies.

That, in particular, is a style of tweet often employed by Trump: References to a variety of other issues, none of them particularly salient to the broader point, but offered with the understanding that his most energetic supporters would know how to fit the pieces together.

Perhaps the most revealing commentary Trump has made about the Mueller investigation in recent days, though, came in a conversation he had with the Daily Caller in the Oval Office on Wednesday. An exchange spotted by Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler has Trump talking about whether Whitaker’s elevation to acting attorney general would be made permanent.

DAILY CALLER: Sure. Could you tell us where your thinking is currently on the attorney general position? I know you’re happy with Matthew Whitaker, do you have any names? Chris Christie — 

TRUMP: Matthew Whitaker is a very respected man. He’s — and he’s, very importantly, he’s respected within DOJ. ... [Whitaker] is just somebody that’s very respected.

I knew him only as he pertained, you know, as he was with Jeff Sessions. And, you know, look, as far as I’m concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had.

It’s something that should have never been brought. It’s an illegal investigation. And you know, it’s very interesting because when you talk about not Senate confirmed, well, Mueller’s not Senate confirmed.

Once Whitaker was named, a variety of questions were asked about his background. Other questions focused on whether he could even serve as acting attorney general, given the constraints that exist around such appointments. That is why Trump mentions Senate confirmation here: One of the critiques has been that Sessions should have been replaced with someone who’d received Senate confirmation. Trump whatabouts the issue, noting Mueller was not Senate-confirmed to serve as special counsel. (Which is not mandated by law, though Mueller was twice confirmed by the Senate to serve as FBI director.)

What’s interesting to note, though, is how Trump goes from a question about Whitaker into a discussion about the Mueller probe, without being prompted. There has been some discussion about whether Trump hired Whitaker specifically because of Whitaker’s stated views about Mueller, which may be what spurs the segue. Trump says Whitaker is respected, catches himself to say he only knew about Whitaker in the context of his work for Sessions and then continues to talk about how the investigation was “illegal.” (It isn’t.)

How do you go from Sessions to the investigation? Maybe Trump was reiterating his rationale for disliking Sessions, bringing up the investigation and the recusal as a way to justify the firing. Regardless, the point is clear: Trump feels the investigation should not have moved forward, and Whitaker’s appointment and/or Sessions’s firing addresses that problem. The reason for the change was the investigation.

Trump’s first tweet about Mueller on Thursday included an interesting claim. All that “screaming and shouting at people” was part of the “inner workings of the+

Mueller investigation,” an insight into a very closely held process Trump has never hinted at before. Where did Trump learn about the inner workings of the Mueller investigation? Was he simply inventing the insight to disparage Mueller and his team? Or did he receive some information about Mueller’s process he lacked before? And, if he did, was it relayed to him through Whitaker?

The undercurrent to this analysis is an important question: Why is Trump suddenly so focused on the Mueller probe? Is it simply a function of the midterms having ended? Or — particularly if Whitaker is reporting back on the probe — is there something looming that necessitates his renewed effort to undercut Mueller’s work? (For example, multiple people have indicated they expect to be indicted soon, including conservative commentator Jerome Corsi and, reportedly, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.)

What we know is this: Trump has returned his focus to the Mueller probe and, to some extent, sees his firing of Sessions as addressing his concerns about the probe’s existence. What we do not know is whether Trump has information that is spurring his renewed focus — but we do know there is reason to believe that, thanks to Whitaker, he has new insights into how the investigation is proceeding.