The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A long winter’: White House aides divided over scope, risks of Russia probe

President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11. (Jorge Silva/Associated Press)

Six months into a special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, White House aides and others in President Trump’s close orbit are increasingly divided in their assessments of the expanding probe and how worried administration officials and campaign aides should be about their potential legal peril, according to numerous people familiar with the debate.

Some in the West Wing avoid the mere mention of Russia or the investigation whenever possible. Others take solace in the reassurances of White House lawyer Ty Cobb that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will be wrapping up the probe soon and the president and those close to him will be exonerated. And a few engage in grim gallows humor, privately joking about wiretaps.

The investigation reached a critical turning point in recent weeks, with a formal subpoena to the campaign, an expanding list of potential witnesses and the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates. Some within Trump’s circle, including former chief of staff Reince Priebus, have already been interviewed by Mueller’s investigators, while others such as Hope Hicks — the White House communications director and trusted confidant of the president — and White House counsel Donald McGahn are expected in coming weeks.

One Republican operative in frequent contact with the White House described Mueller’s team “working through the staff like Pac-Man.”

“Of course they are worried,” said the Republican, who insisted on anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “Anybody that ever had the words ‘Russia’ come out of their lips or in an email, they’re going to get talked to. These things are thorough and deep. It’s going to be a long winter.”

President Trump drew criticism for his apparent acceptance of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election meddling. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington post)

The president himself, however, has warmed to Cobb’s optimistic message on Mueller’s probe. Cobb had initially said he hoped the focus on the White House would conclude by Thanksgiving, but adjusted the timeline slightly in an interview last week, saying he remains optimistic that it will wrap up by the end of the year, if not shortly thereafter.

At least nine people in Trump’s orbit had contact with Russians during campaign and transition

Trump’s lawyers have also repeatedly said the president himself is not personally under investigation. However, multiple people familiar with the probe say investigators are examining Trump’s conduct leading up to the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and whether that conduct constitutes obstruction of justice.

“I’ve done my best, without overstepping, to share my view that the perception of the inquiry — that it involved a decade or more of financial transactions and other alleged issues that were mistakenly reported — just wasn’t true, and that the issues were narrower and wholly consistent with the mandate provided by the Justice Department to the Office of the Special Counsel,” Cobb said.

Cobb added that those who have already been interviewed by Mueller’s team have left feeling buoyed. “The people who have been interviewed generally feel they were treated fairly by the special counsel, and adequately prepared to assist them in understanding the relevant material,” he said. “They came back feeling relieved that it was over, but nobody I know of was shaken or scared.”

But the reassurances from Cobb and others — which seem at least partially aimed at keeping the president calm and focused on governing — are viewed by others as naive.

“The president says, ‘This is all just an annoyance. I did nothing,’ ” said one person close to the administration. “He is somewhat arrogant about it. But this investigation is a classic Gambino-style roll-up. You have to anticipate this roll-up will reach everyone in this administration.”

The Trump campaign and the White House have said there was no contact between anyone on their staff and Russia. This isn't true. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

The soothing outlook also comes against the backdrop of new revelations.

In mid-October, for example, Mueller’s office subpoenaed a series of documents from the Trump campaign with a list of Russia-related search words, according to a person familiar with the request. The person said the request appeared to be “an effort to be thorough” and not miss any records as the office obtains the communications of campaign members through other methods.

Mueller’s investigators are also still actively mapping out all the attempts by Russian nationals and people with ties to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s government to connect with and possibly infiltrate the Trump campaign. So far, at least nine people in Trump’s orbit had contact with Russians during the campaign or the transition to the White House, according to Mueller’s charging documents and interviews and records obtained by The Washington Post.

Witnesses questioned by Mueller’s team warn that investigators are asking about other foreign contacts and meetings that have not yet become public, and to expect a series of new revelations. Investigators are especially focused on foreign officials’ contacts with Michael Flynn, a campaign adviser and later Trump’s national security adviser, witnesses said.

Cobb said he does not expect the latest revelations to “unduly extend the inquiry.”

Donald Trump Jr. communicated with WikiLeaks during 2016 campaign

Many in the White House also insist they believe the probe is coming to a close, a view shared by the president himself. Arguing that most investigations start with periphery players and move ever closer to the inner circle, they view Mueller’s recent focus on those closest to Trump as a sign that his probe has reached its final stage.

People close to the investigation, however, say a tidy and quick conclusion is unlikely, and would defy the pattern of most special counsel investigations in recent history.

In fact, legal experts and private defense lawyers monitoring the case believe that Mueller’s investigation — which officially began in May and resulted in its first charges against three former campaign aides last month — is still in its early stages.

They expect that the prosecutors have considerable investigative work still to do, and they predict more campaign officials, among others, will face charges. They expect the probe to extend deep into 2018 and possibly longer.

The trial of Manafort and Gates, for instance, is many months away. And Mueller’s investigators are still gathering documents and other evidence to evaluate.

Prosecutors have also secured a guilty plea and cooperation from former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who has been talking to investigators about his conversations with other members of the Trump campaign, according to people familiar with the probe.

In any white-collar probe, investigative pressure on low-level officials can lead to guilty pleas and cooperation, generating new evidence and leads about those higher on the chain of command, these people noted. And while that process can stall out if people refuse to cooperate or offer nothing of interest to investigators, there’s no indication that has happened in the Russia investigation.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to believe this is almost over,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at George Washington University. “Based not just on what we’ve seen but also what we know about white-collar investigations generally, this seems to me like it is just getting started.”

Three separate congressional committee investigations into Russian interference in the election sometimes overlap and track over Mueller’s probe, and pose high-risk complications for Trump aides, politically and legally.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week alleged that it appeared Kushner had withheld some documents about a Russian gun rights’ activist’s effort to connect a Putin ally and the Trump campaign. Kushner’s lawyers said the committee never asked their client for records of proposed meetings that never happened – but the episode gave the impression Kushner had something to hide.

Senate Judiciary panel: Kushner had contacts about WikiLeaks, Russian overtures he did not disclose

Far more serious is the need for Trump aides to answer honestly and consistently; any testimony to a congressional committee that later shifts before an FBI agent or grand jury could be used to charge a witness with making false statements.

Some people close to the president, including former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, have urged Trump in recent weeks to consider hiring a veteran criminal defense lawyer to protect him from missteps in the probe. Bannon has complained to friends that he considers Cobb, who is managing the White House’s response to the Russia probe, and John Dowd, one of the president’s personal lawyers on the investigation, to be out of their league in handling questions and document requests from Mueller’s star-studded team of prosecutors.

This summer, Trump had interviewed a handful of lawyers, and ultimately decided to hire Marc Kasowitz — a Bannon ally and a longtime lawyer for the Trump Organization — to represent him in the case. But Kasowitz flamed out amid questions about his volatile temperament and after a series of heated strategy disagreements with other lawyers representing the Trump family. The president now relies on Cobb, Dowd and Jay Sekulow, another personal lawyer helping with the probe.

Inside the West Wing, many aides describe an atmosphere of relative calm against the backdrop of the investigation, with staffers mindful but not necessarily worried about the probe. Those who are not directly involved said they deliberately avoid the topic of Russia and the investigation, simply refusing to talk about it and only thinking about it on days when it dominates the news.

One White House official said the ongoing investigation has now just become a frustrating part of daily reality for aides, and they attempt to soldier on knowing they personally did nothing wrong.

But some suspect that Mueller’s probe may weigh more heavily on some of their colleagues, especially those who have been compelled to testify before Congress or Mueller’s investigators. More than a dozen, including McGahn and Vice President Pence, have had to hire lawyers, and some junior aides fear their legal fees will rise to three or four times their annual salaries.

One Republican close to the White House likened the low-grade nervousness to working for the Senate campaign of Roy Moore — the Alabama Republican facing allegations of unwanted sexual and romantic overtures to teenage girls when he was in his 30s — and never quite knowing what else might come out.

The revelation last month that Papadopoulos had been arrested in July and was secretly cooperating with Mueller's team led many to rack their memories: Had they ever talked or emailed with him?

And sometimes, gallows humor creeps into the West Wing.

“When the staff gather in the morning at the White House now, they jokingly say: ‘Good morning. Are you wired?’ ” one person close to the administration said.

Devlin Barrett and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.