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The Memo: Lawyer’s exit signals harder line by Trump

The resignation of the lead attorney on President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems add five candidates to ‘Red to Blue’ program White House notifies Russia that no new sanctions are coming: report Senators push HHS to negotiate lower prices on opioid overdose reversal drug MORE’s personal legal team is the strongest sign yet that Trump wants to pursue a harder line in confronting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

John Dowd resigned on Thursday. Although he emphasized his “love” for Trump in comments to news outlets, his departure came after the president lost faith in him, according to several sources.

“The president wants to be more aggressive,” one source within Trump’s orbit told The Hill. 

Dowd “wasn’t tough enough for the president,” this person added.

Some Trump loyalists were even more critical.

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“Good riddance,” was the verdict of Sam Nunberg, the former Trump aide who recently made headlines with a flurry of television interviews in which he suggested he might defy a subpoena from the Mueller team to appear before a grand jury. (He later relented.)

Referring to Ty Cobb, the in-house White House counsel for the probe into Russian election meddling, Nunberg added, “Cobb should be fired next. Their strategy has hurt the president.”

Dowd and Cobb favor a broadly cooperative stance toward Mueller. Their argument, in essence, is that the president has done nothing wrong and therefore would benefit from the Mueller probe being concluded expeditiously.

One problem, however, is that Cobb predicted last year that the special counsel’s investigation would be over by Thanksgiving 2017, or by the end of that year. 

Outside legal experts argued, even at the time, that the prediction was unrealistic.

As the probe has gone on, and new avenues have reportedly been opened by Mueller’s team, Trump’s patience has grown thin.

He name-checked Mueller for the first time in a tweet on Sunday, blasting the special counsel’s team as having “13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary [Clinton] Supporters and zero Republicans.”

Mueller himself was appointed as FBI director by a Republican president, George W. Bush. He is reportedly registered Republican. 

On Monday, Trump branded the probe a "total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!”

The White House has insisted that Trump has no intention of firing Mueller. Republican lawmakers have predicted catastrophe were he to do so. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel moving ahead with Mueller bill despite McConnell opposition Overnight Defense: Lawmakers worry over Syria strategy | Trump's base critical of strikes | Flake undecided on Pompeo | Coast Guard plans to keep allowing transgender members | GOP chair wants to cut B from Pentagon agencies Trump draws criticism from his base over Syria MORE (R-S.C.) told CNN on Sunday that such a move would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency.”

The most fervent among Trump’s supporters are enthused about this week’s hiring of Joe diGenova onto the president’s legal team. 

DiGenova is a much more aggressive figure than either Dowd or Cobb. Prior to joining Trump’s team, he had argued that the FBI was conspiring to frame the president.

One GOP operative, referring to diGenova taking the lead, said: “I think you’ll see every inch of ground fought for — every document, every email, every witness. It’s siege warfare now.”

The source inside Trump's orbit exulted that “there's a new boss in town.”

Two questions loom over the legal picture: Whether Cobb’s job is safe inside the White House and whether any more senior figure will be hired on the outside to take the lead above diGenova.

Speculation is swirling around Cobb but the president has not made any definitive move against him.

At least two well-known lawyers — Ted Olsen and Emmett Flood— are reported to have been approached about taking a role. But a top executive at Olsen’s firm later tweeted that neither Olsen nor the firm would be representing Trump.

Jay Sekulow remains in position as one of Trump’s personal attorneys and told The Hill on Thursday that he and his colleagues “will continue our ongoing representation” of the president.

The Hill understands that Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, retains a voice in the legal deliberations as well.

One source familiar with the current legal team’s thinking offered a nuanced view on the meaning of Dowd’s resignation and the hiring of diGenova.

This source argued that the change was more about Trump’s communications strategy than his legal strategy.

Trump’s lawyers, this person insisted, “all agree [on] cooperating with the special counsel to move things along. The question was how aggressively we should message out in the public square.”

“John believed it was better not to engage in that, so as to wrap things up with the special counsel. But I don’t think the president can do that for too long,” the source added.

Outside experts cautioned that Trump seems a deeply challenging client.

“I think Trump wants to be more aggressive in the court of public opinion, as well as in the court of law, if it goes there. But any legal strategy is only as effective as the client’s willingness to listen to their lawyer,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent.

Rangappa, like other sources, also highlighted Dowd's reported role, with Cobb, in trying to keep Trump calm by promising that the Mueller probe could soon come to a conclusion.

“His departure could reflect a dawning realization that this is not ending,” she said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.