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‘The gloves may be coming off’: Shake-up of Trump legal team signals combative posture toward special counsel

With White House Counsel Donald McGahn's departure, President Trump's large and ever-changing legal team is thrown into turmoil once again. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s growing desire for his lawyers to more forcefully counter the ongoing special counsel investigation drove yet another shake-up of his legal team on Wednesday, putting the White House on war footing with federal prosecutors examining Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who repeatedly urged cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and assured the president such a strategy could shorten the investigation, announced he would leave his post at the end of the month.

In his place, Trump tapped Republican defense attorney Emmet Flood, who brings experience wrangling with investigators when he represented President Bill Clinton during House proceedings to impeach him.

Flood will soon work alongside a remade group of personal lawyers — including another hire expected in the coming weeks — as they devise a new strategy to deal with Mueller’s team, according to White House advisers.

The latest upheaval of the president’s legal team comes as Trump has adopted an increasingly hostile posture toward the special counsel, whose investigation has expanded into an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice by seeking to shut down the probe.

“This signals a new phase,” said one senior Trump adviser who was granted anonymity to describe private conversations. “We are looking at all the options now. Nothing’s off the table. ... But the gloves may be coming off.”

Mueller has been seeking an interview with the president — warning Trump’s lawyers in March that he could subpoena him if Trump declines, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Mueller raised possibility of presidential subpoena in meeting with Trump’s legal team

Trump, who often considers himself his own best counselor on politics and law, has increasingly complained in recent weeks that he needed to consider all options for fighting Mueller and not simply agree to an interview, according to people familiar with his views.

Cobb was a strong advocate that the president should sit down with the special counsel, repeatedly counseling cooperation as a way to get the probe wrapped up quickly.

But other members of the legal team share Trump’s view that they should take a more confrontational approach with the special counsel, including lawyer Jay Sekulow, who has urged the group to consider the pros and cons of fighting a subpoena, according to people familiar with his advice.

“Jay felt that he needed someone that was more aggressive,” former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is now serving as Trump’s lead personal attorney dealing with the special counsel, told The Post on Wednesday.

“That’s not a criticism of Ty, but it’s just about how we’re going to do this,” he added.

Sekulow declined to comment. Cobb did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement to CBS, he said that he does not “mind being regarded as a peacemaker.”

Cobb said that Trump wanted him to stay on, but Cobb said he felt he had fulfilled his role in facilitating document production and interviews with the special counsel for White House staff.

“People will think this means we’re going to war, but I would not read that into this,” he added.

But Cobb’s exit capped off a 48-hour period during which Trump dramatically ratcheted up his criticism of the Mueller probe and the Justice Department as running a “rigged system.”

“There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap),” the president tweeted Wednesday.

He later waded into an escalating standoff between Justice Department officials and GOP lawmakers demanding the release of a sensitive document outlining the scope of Mueller’s investigation.

“At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!” Trump tweeted.

Justice Department heading for clash with Trump, lawmakers over Mueller probe memo

The combative tenor was apparent even in the official statement Wednesday from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirming that Flood would replace Cobb, which referred to Mueller’s investigation as “the Russia witch hunt.”

Flood, a partner at Williams & Connolly who appears willing to take a more adversarial approach to the special counsel than Cobb, was recruited in large part by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, according to two people familiar with the process.

McGahn, who knows Flood through their legal careers and work on conservative causes, has praised him in conversations with Trump and senior White House aides, seeing Flood as someone who shared his instincts and his wariness of overly engaging with the special counsel investigation, the people said.

McGahn also views Flood as a top candidate to replace him should he decide to step down, the people added. McGahn has been reluctant to set an exit date, even as he has acknowledged to friends that he could leave the White House at some point later this year.

McGahn and Flood declined to comment.

Flood’s selection came in part because the investigation had reached a pivotal moment, said one person familiar with his recruitment for the job. Cobb had led the White House’s efforts to produce documents in response to requests from Mueller. Now, the White House is anticipating a possible legal showdown over a presidential interview.

“You had the discovery phase, and now you’re entering the litigation phase,” said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. “Who do you want on your side if Mueller decides to subpoena the president? You want to have your wartime consigliere. Emmet is a quintessential wartime consigliere.”

Added Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard Law professor and informal Trump adviser: “Flood is the kind of guy you bring in if you want to litigate, or at least if you want the other side to think you are going to litigate.”

Trump is intent on ridding his presidency of the shadow that the investigation has cast, according to one adviser who frequently talks to him — and no longer sees cooperating as the quickest way to make that happen.

“He feels his guys are being outmaneuvered,” this adviser said. “They’ve told him, ‘Oh, we have this relationship with Mueller.’ He goes, ‘Okay, what do you have to show for it?’”

In private conversations, Trump has taken to decrying Mueller’s probe as a “total b------- investigation” and has occasionally invoked his late attorney Roy Cohn, a hard-charging figure who taught him to punch back at enemies.

“It’s the theory of law — that if someone pushes on you, you push back three or four times harder,” the person said.

Giuliani, who renewed talks with Mueller in recent weeks about a possible presidential interview, said Trump’s legal team is going to push the special counsel to demonstrate his evidence and seek to limit questions for the president.

“Some people have talked about a possible 12-hour interview,” he said, adding: “That’s not going to happen — I’ll tell you that. It’d be, max, two to three hours around a narrow set of questions.”

Giuliani reopens negotiations about presidential interview with Mueller, but cautions special counsel that Trump remains resistant

When Mueller first asked about an interview with the president in December, Trump expressed eagerness to sit down with the special counsel in hopes of clearing his name.

In the past month, however, Trump has hardened against the idea after FBI investigators working with federal prosecutors in Manhattan executed a surprise search warrant of his personal attorney Michael Cohen’s office and residences.

Among the material they sought were communications between the two men about efforts to tamp down negative publicity about Trump during the campaign and details about a payment Cohen made to an adult-film star who alleged she had a sexual relationship with Trump years earlier.

Rosalind S. Helderman and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.