Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon plotting abrupt end to Russia investigation, insiders say

0
79

Stephen Bannon, who was ousted as White House chief strategist last summer but has remained in touch with some members of president Donald 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 Mr Trump to fire deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the work of special counsel Robert Mueller and in recent days signed off on a search warrant of Mr Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

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

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 Mr 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, Mr Bannon told The Washington Post in an interview on 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 Mr Trump, who forced out Mr Bannon and later said his former adviser had “lost his mind” after leaving the West Wing, would be willing to take Mr Bannon’s advice or is aware of the plan. Several of Mr Trump’s aides also remain sceptical of the former strategist’s attempt to insert himself into the president’s decision making process.

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

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

Mr Trump remains furious with the Mueller probe, which on Wednesday he blasted on Twitter as “never ending and corrupt”. He has also considered firing Mr Rosenstein, whom he has criticised 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.

Mr Bannon and his allies sense that Mr Trump simply needs a nudge to fire Mr Rosenstein, according to the people familiar with Mr Bannon’s discussions. They said Mr 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.

Mr Bannon’s conversations, including a meeting on 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 Mr Trump, according to people involved, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

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

Ever since, Mr 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 hardline views on global affairs. Amid all of that activity, he has regularly spoken with White House officials and lawmakers about Mr Trump and offered informal guidance on issues such as trade and the Russia investigation.

Mr Bannon, who has been interviewed extensively by Mr Mueller’s team, remains sensitive about directly approaching Mr Trump with his call to fire Mr 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 Mr Rosenstein or Mr Mueller, worrying that such moves could prompt mass resignations at justice and a constitutional crisis, the people said. Mr McGahn, who in the past has threatened to step down if the president fired Mr Mueller, is widely seen within the West Wing as liable to resign if Mr Rosenstein is fired.

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

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

Legal experts are dubious about Mr 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 say it’s certain to be challenged in court.

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

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

Mr Cobb declined to comment.

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

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

If Mr Rosenstein were fired, his replacement could reel in the authority that Mr 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,” Mr Seidman said. “In the end, if Trump is determined, the people he appoints could shut it down.”

For Mr Bannon, this hostility to Mr Mueller represents an evolution. A year ago, he opposed the firing of then FBI director James 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 centre of gravity of this back to Capitol Hill,” Mr Bannon said. “Make the Republican Party own this, force them to have his back.”

The Washington Post