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Bannon pitches White House on plan to cripple Mueller probe and protect Trump

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former top strategist, says the White House should stop cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Muller III and assert executive privilege. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Stephen K. Bannon, who was ousted as White House chief strategist last summer but has remained in touch with some members of President Trump’s circle, is pitching a plan to West Wing aides and congressional allies to cripple the federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

The first step, these people say, would be for Trump to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and in recent days signed off on a search warrant of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen.

Bannon is also recommending the White House cease its cooperation with Mueller, reversing the policy of Trump’s legal team to provide information to the special counsel’s team and to allow staff members to sit for interviews.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein has been the target of President Trump's ire for months. Here's a look back at their history. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

And he is telling associates inside and outside the administration that the president should create a new legal battleground to protect himself from the investigation by asserting executive privilege — and arguing that Mueller’s interviews with White House officials over the past year should now be null and void.

“The president wasn’t fully briefed by his lawyers on the implications” of not invoking executive privilege, Bannon told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday. “It was a strategic mistake to turn over everything without due process, and executive privilege should be exerted immediately and retroactively.”

There is no indication that Trump, who forced out Bannon and later said his former adviser had “lost his mind” after leaving the West Wing, would be willing to take Bannon’s advice or is aware of the plan. Several Trump aides also remain skeptical of the former strategist’s attempt to insert himself into the president’s decision-making process.

Democrats introduced a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, and condemned attacks on the Justice Department from President Trump and Steve Bannon. (Video: Reuters)

“If you say his name in front of the president, it’s not a pretty sight,” said a senior administration official. “The president really goes off about him.”

Nonetheless, Bannon’s efforts signify the growing pressure from an influential wing of Trump’s political base to thwart Mueller, who, many Trump allies believe, presents an existential legal and political threat to his presidency.

Trump boosters in Congress are preparing to take legislative action against Rosenstein and other Justice officials over the disclosure of documents related to the Russia investigation. That push is seen by Bannon and others in the White House as a cause that could prompt Trump to act and shift much of the Russia investigation to Capitol Hill, where Republicans control both chambers.

Trump remains furious with the Mueller probe, which on Wednesday he blasted on Twitter as “never ending and corrupt.” He has also considered firing Rosenstein, whom he has criticized for approving surveillance applications of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, which extended a warrant that partly relied on information that was funded in a roundabout way by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Bannon and his allies sense that Trump simply needs a nudge to fire Rosenstein, according to the people familiar with Bannon’s discussions. They said Trump has recently told friends and aides that he is willing to engage in political warfare in the coming months to stop his presidency from being consumed by the investigation.

Bannon’s conversations, including a meeting Tuesday night between the former strategist and Trump confidants, have so far remained through back channels.

The 64-year-old strategist has huddled in recent days — at his Capitol Hill townhouse, a Washington hotel and over the phone — with a handful of White House aides, GOP lawmakers and conservative media figures who speak frequently with Trump, according to people involved, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Bannon’s standing within Trump’s orbit is tenuous. In January, lawyers for Trump accused Bannon of breaking a confidentiality agreement by making critical comments about Trump and his family in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff.

Ever since, Bannon has seen his domestic political operation — which was focused on the 2018 midterm elections — fizzle, and his attention has turned abroad to boosting far-right nationalist candidates in Europe, giving speeches and promoting his hard-line views on global affairs. Amid all of that activity, he has regularly spoken with White House officials and lawmakers about Trump and offered informal guidance on issues such as trade and the Russia investigation.

Bannon, who has been interviewed extensively by Mueller’s team, remains sensitive about directly approaching Trump with his call to fire Rosenstein and curb Justice’s grip over the Russia probe, the people added, noting that federal investigators could raise questions about such exchanges.

Some top Trump advisers, such as White House counsel Donald McGahn, are said to be alarmed by the suggestions to fire Rosenstein or Mueller, worrying that such moves could prompt mass resignations at Justice and a constitutional crisis, the people said. ­McGahn, who in the past has threatened to step down if the president fired Mueller, is widely seen within the West Wing as liable to resign if Rosenstein is fired.

“A guy leaning on a mop over at the Justice Department may be the guy who ends up firing Mueller,” one person said.

Asked Wednesday afternoon whether Trump would be pushing out Rosenstein, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I don’t have any personnel announcements.” But she offered no words of support for Rosenstein, signaling that the deputy attorney general’s job may be in jeopardy. Later Wednesday, a White House spokesman pointed to Huckabee Sanders’s news conference when asked for comment about Bannon.

Legal experts are dubious about Bannon’s idea that the White House could suddenly claim executive privilege on interviews that were given voluntarily by officials and be able to exclude them from an investigation that is partly reliant on those interviews. They also wonder if this action would even be allowed under the law and are certain it would be challenged in court.

But Bannon believes Trump can argue he was given poor counsel by his lawyers on Russia, including Ty Cobb, who has encouraged a cooperative approach to Mueller’s team.

“Ty Cobb should be fired immediately,” Bannon said.

Cobb declined to comment.

The case against Rosenstein has featured prominently in the closed-door discussions among Bannon and other figures on the right, with Bannon arguing that voters in the GOP base will stick by the president if he removes Rosenstein despite protests from Republican leaders and many others.

Rosenstein’s approval of the Cohen warrant, which led to raids Monday on Cohen’s home and office, has angered Trump and prompted him to vent over the past day about Rosenstein being “out of control,” one Republican lawmaker said.

If Rosenstein were fired, his replacement could reel in the authority that Mueller was granted last year and set new parameters for the scope of the Russia investigation, according to Louis Seidman, a constitutional-law professor at Georgetown University.

“Depending on how aggressive this person wanted to be, they could dismiss the criminal cases, they could get rid of the grand jury,” Seidman said. “In the end, if Trump is determined, the people he appoints could shut it down.”

For Bannon, this hostility to Mueller represents an evolution. A year ago, he opposed the firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey and recommended a hands-off approach to the Russia investigation and Justice.

“I have the utmost respect for Bob Mueller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but the developments over the past two weeks make it the right time to shift the center of gravity of this back to Capitol Hill,” Bannon said. “Make the Republican Party own this, force them to have his back.”

Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Karoun Demirjian, Carol D. Leonnig, Matt Zapotosky and Philip Bump contributed to this report.