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‘Siege warfare’: Republican anxiety spikes as Trump faces growing legal and political perils

President Trump disembarks Marine One and walks back across the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 7, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A growing number of Republicans fear that a battery of new revelations in the far-reaching Russia investigation has dramatically heightened the legal and political danger to Donald Trump’s presidency — and threatens to consume the rest of the party, as well.

President Trump added to the tumult Saturday by announcing the abrupt exit of his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, whom he sees as lacking the political judgment and finesse to steer the White House through the treacherous months to come.

Trump remains headstrong in his belief that he can outsmart adversaries and weather any threats, according to advisers. In the Russia probe, he continues to roar denials, dubiously proclaiming that the latest allegations of wrongdoing by his former associates “totally clear” him.

Federal prosecutors filed new court papers on Dec. 7 that revealed a previously unreported contact from a Russian to Trump’s inner circle during the campaign. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

But anxiety is spiking among Republican allies, who complain that Trump and the White House have no real plan for dealing with the Russia crisis while confronting a host of other troubles at home and abroad.

Facing the dawn of his third year in office and his bid for reelection, Trump is stepping into a political hailstorm. Democrats are preparing to seize control of the House in January with subpoena power to investigate corruption. Global markets are reeling from his trade war. The United States is isolated from its traditional partners. The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference is intensifying. And court filings Friday in a separate federal case implicated Trump in a felony.

The White House is adopting what one official termed a “shrugged shoulders” strategy for the Mueller findings, calculating that most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.

But some allies fret that the president’s coalition could crack apart under the growing pressure. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump strategist who helped him navigate the most arduous phase of his 2016 campaign, predicted 2019 would be a year of “siege warfare” and cast the president’s inner circle as naively optimistic and unsophisticated.

“The Democrats are going to weaponize the Mueller report and the president needs a team that can go to the mattresses,” Bannon said. “The president can’t trust the GOP to be there when it counts . . . They don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to stand with Trump.”

This portrait of the Trump White House at a precarious juncture is based on interviews with 14 administration officials, presidential confidants and allies, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss private exchanges.

Rather than building a war room to manage the intersecting crises as past administrations have done, the Trump White House is understaffed, stuck in a bunker mentality and largely resigned to a plan to wing it. Political and communications operatives are mostly taking their cues from the president and letting him drive the message with his spontaneous broadsides.

“A war room? You serious?” one former White House official said when asked about internal preparations. “They’ve never had one, will never have one. They don’t know how to do one.”

Trump’s decision to change his chief of staff, however, appears to be a recognition that he needs a strong political team in place for the remainder of his first term. The leading candidate for the job is Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff and an experienced campaign operative known for his political acumen and deep network in the party.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will be leaving his role in the coming months. Here's a look back at his tumultuous tenure. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Joyce Koh, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Throughout the 18-month special counsel investigation, Trump has single-handedly spun his own deceptive reality, seeking to sully the reputations of Mueller’s operation and federal law enforcement in an attempt to preemptively discredit their eventual conclusions.

The president has been telling friends that he believes the special counsel is flailing and has found nothing meaningful. “It’s all games and trying to connect dots that don’t really make sense,” one friend said in describing Trump’s view of Mueller’s progress. “Trump is angry, but he’s not really worried.”

But Mueller’s latest court filings offer new evidence of Russian efforts to forge a political alliance with Trump before he became president and detail the extent to which his former aides are cooperating with prosecutors.

Some GOP senators were particularly shaken by this week’s revelation that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had met with Mueller’s team 19 separate times — a distressing signal to them that the probe may be more serious than they had been led to assume, according to senior Republican officials.

Even in the friendliest quarters, there are fresh hints of trouble. Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, a reliable prime-time booster of the president, faulted Trump in an interview this week for failing to keep his main campaign promises, understand the legislative process and learn how to govern effectively.

For now, Republicans on Capitol Hill are still inclined to stand by Trump and give the president the benefit of the doubt. But one pro-Trump senator said privately that a breaking point would be if Mueller documents conspiracy with Russians.

“Then they’ve lost me,” said the senator, noting that several Republican lawmakers have been willing to publicly break with Trump when they believe it is in their interests — as many did over Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), an outspoken Trump critic and a frequent subject of his ire, said, “The president’s situation is fraught with mounting peril, and that’s apparent to everyone who’s paying any attention, which is all of my Republican colleagues.”

Another possible breaking point could come if Trump pardons his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who has elicited the president’s sympathy as he sits in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison following the collapse of his plea agreement with Mueller’s team, White House aides and Republican lawmakers said. Trump advisers said they understand that a pardon of Manafort could be difficult to defend and could prompt rebukes from Republican allies.

The special counsel on Friday accused Manafort of telling “multiple dis­cern­ible lies” during interviews with prosecutors. Manafort was convicted of tax and bank fraud and has pleaded guilty to additional charges, including conspiring to defraud the United States by hiding years of income and failing to disclose lobbying work for a pro-Russian political party and politician in Ukraine.

Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, is bracing not only for new Mueller developments but also for an onslaught of congressional requests. New White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his associate, Emmet T. Flood, are the leaders inside, although both have taken pains to stay out of the spotlight.

Cipollone has been scouring the résumés of congressional Republican staffers with experience handling investigations and trying to recruit them to the White House, officials said. Meanwhile, Flood, who advised former president Bill Clinton during his impeachment, has been prepping for months to forcefully exert executive privilege once House Democrats assume the majority.

Yet hiring remains difficult as potential staffers worry about whether they will need to hire a personal lawyer if they join and express uncertainty about the constant turmoil within the White House hierarchy, as illustrated by Kelly’s announced departure Saturday.

Bannon said he and others were urging contacts in the White House to enlist David N. Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager and a former congressional investigator who was known for his hard-edge tactics.

Trump’s lead outside attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he and his team are busy writing a defiant “counter report” to Mueller, which the president boasted this week was 87 pages long. Giuliani described the effort as a collaboration in which he, Jay Sekulow, Jane Raskin and other lawyers draft different sections and then trade them among the group, debating how to frame various passages on the president’s conduct and Russian interference.

“We’re writing out a lot and will pick and choose what to include. We’re trying to think through every possibility,” Giuliani said. “I’m sure we’ll take the lead in defending [Trump] publicly, if he needs defense, like we always do.”

Some of Trump’s allies have been encouraging him to bolster his legal team. One confidant recalled telling the president, “You need to get you an army of lawyers who know what the hell they’re doing.”

So far, Trump’s public relations strategy mostly has been to attack Mueller, as opposed to countering the facts of his investigation. But Lanny Davis, a former Clinton lawyer, said that approach has limits.

“No matter what your client says, if you’re not ready with factual messages to rebut charges, you’ll fail,” said Davis, who now advises former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who faces possible prison time for crimes including lying to Congress about his Russia contacts. “Even if you think the Trump strategy of attacking the messenger can continue to work, it will not work once the Mueller report is done.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said Clinton’s experience in 1998, when the embattled president questioned the special prosecutor and warned of GOP overreach, is instructive for Trump and Republicans, showing them how to be both combative and confident amid chaos.

“You can’t have that many smart lawyers, with the full power of the government, and not have something bad come out,” Gingrich said of the special counsel’s team. “Mueller has to find something, like Trump jaywalked 11 times. The media will go crazy for three days, screaming, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ ”

But, Gingrich said, “This isn’t a crisis moment for Trump or the party. Remember, we thought we had Clinton on the ropes, but Clinton kept smiling and his popularity went up.”

The White House is looking to its hard-right supporters on Capitol Hill to serve as its political flank, in particular House Republicans such as Mark Meadows (N.C.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), and Devin Nunes (Calif.), who are frequent guests on Fox News Channel. In January, Jordan and Nunes will be the top-ranking Republicans on the House Oversight Committee and the House Select Committee on Intelligence, respectively, positioning them as public faces of the Trump defense and antagonists of the Justice Department’s leadership.

Republicans close to incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said there is an implicit understanding that Jordan, Meadows and others in their orbit will be most vocal, but many rank-and-file Republicans, looking to hold on to their seats, will attempt to avoid becoming swept up in the standoff over the probe, as they have for over a year.

“Among most House Republicans, the feeling is, ‘We’re ready for this to be over with. We’re not nervous, but we’re having Mueller fatigue,’ ” Meadows said.

But Democrats say they are determined not to let the investigation end prematurely. Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), who sits on the intelligence committee as well as the House Judiciary Committee, said, “Our job is to protect the investigation from the president — whether it’s firing Mueller, intimidating witnesses or obstructing the investigation.”

Trump critics, like retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) — who has sponsored legislation that would protect Mueller but has been largely ignored by his colleagues — warned that the drumbeat of Trump loyalists in Congress, along with the president’s relentless clashes with Mueller, have lulled Republicans into a dangerous place.

“It’s like the party is a frog slowly boiling in water, being conditioned to not be worried, to not think too hard about what’s happening around them,” Flake said. “They feel at a loss about what to do because it’s the president’s party, without any doubt. So, there’s a lot of whistling by the graveyard these days.”

Giuliani dismissed Flake’s criticism in much the same way he and the president have taken on Mueller — with a barbed character attack rather than a measured rebuttal.

“He’s a bitter, bitter man,” Giuliani said of Flake. “It’s sick. Nobody likes him and they would like him gone.”