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In White House, mood is perseverance amid the storm

The White House believes it is weathering the storm wrought by former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea and staff remains optimistic President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE will survive the Russia investigation that has clouded his first year in office.

The mood largely reflects the cool attitude of attorney Ty Cobb, who is telling Trump and his aides the investigation will wrap up by year's end or soon thereafter, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former White House officials and outside advisers in touch with the West Wing.

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“The feeling now, over the last 48 hours, is very positive,” said one former transition official. “I feel good about it. Everyone I talk to does.”

There is satisfaction within the administration that tax legislation is moving in Congress and that the White House accomplished its campaign goal of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — even as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation moves closer to the White House.

Mueller has come under attack recently by GOP lawmakers, conservative activists and pro-Trump television personalities who accuse his office of being compromised by partisan bias, an effort some in the White House believe is taking its toll on the special counsel’s credibility.

But that sanguine outlook is far from unanimous.

A small, but significant, segment of those in the president’s orbit say it’s wishful thinking that the probe will end soon, reflecting their growing anxiety that Mueller is methodically working his way up the food chain in an investigation that is months — if not years — from completion.

Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon has spoken by phone with Trump to warn him he is receiving a bunch of “happy talk” from his legal team and to urge him to take a more aggressive stance against Mueller, according to someone familiar with Bannon’s thinking.

Even if Mueller does not prove the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s election meddling efforts in 2016, some allies worry the White House is suffering irreparable political damage under the weight of the investigation.

In addition to exploring the possibility of collusion, the centerpiece of the probe, Mueller’s team is looking into alleged financial crimes committed by Trump campaign aides and possible obstruction of justice.

Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser in the White House, pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. and later said he is cooperating with the special counsel’s team.

It’s an indication Mueller’s probe could stretch well into 2018 and possibly beyond, despite Cobb’s public and private reassurances.

“It’s a political cancer and if you don’t give the patient some chemotherapy, there is a good chance something bad happens,” said one person close to the Trump administration.

Asked about the legal advice Trump is receiving, the person responded, “they’re giving him ibuprofen to cure cancer.”

That frustration with Trump’s legal team — and Cobb in particular — is growing among some critics, who say it is not taking Mueller’s threat to the administration seriously enough.

“The incompetence is staggering,” said one adviser with close ties to the White House.

Cobb did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Inside the West Wing, it is hard to miss the constant churn of news about the Russia investigation.

High-definition televisions mounted on the walls of West Wing offices show a split screen of four major cable news networks, whose programming is often consumed by the latest Russia-related developments.

But for the most part, aides say they aren’t affected by the press coverage and are staying focused on whatever happens to be the task at hand, according to one White House staffer.

“There’s a numbing effect too,” said a person who is close to the administration. “If you work there, you stop getting bothered by every new thing that’s coming out.”

One former White House staffer called the news reports “background noise for a vast majority of folks.”

New revelations this week about alleged anti-Trump sentiment among some key members of Mueller’s team are driving anger at the special counsel and a sense that his findings will be dismissed as compromised by politics.

Attacks against senior FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was reassigned from the probe, and top Mueller lieutenant Andrew Weissmann for private anti-Trump messages they allegedly sent are being amplified every night to conservative audiences tuning into Fox News.

“It’s as if the worm has turned with everything that’s being exposed about FBI and the special counsel,” said a former transition adviser who is in touch with White House staff.

While Flynn’s guilty plea last Friday shook Washington, White House staff say they were less surprised because the guilty plea, for making false statements to the FBI, was far short of what many expected.

There is a sense of optimism that the former national security adviser will be the biggest fish Mueller nets.

“I just really do think we’re in the last month or months of this and it’s going to be all over,” said former Trump adviser Barry Bennett.

The escalating pace of developments surrounding the special counsel investigation, however, has at times been an added stressor in a tumultuous year for White House staff.

There has already been considerable turnover among senior staff, and the White House is bracing for another potential exodus at the end of the year.

That wave will include Dina Powell, Trump’s deputy national security adviser and one of the most well-regarded members of his team, who the White House announced Friday will leave in the coming weeks.

Some junior White House staffers feel overworked, a symptom of having to pick up duties at agencies, from the Department of Energy to the State Department, that the administration has been slow to staff, according to outside advisers.

“The White House nomination process is a black hole,” said one adviser.

And there is concern that Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip on Twitter and during impromptu press gaggles will land him and his team in further legal jeopardy.

The White House was forced to scramble into damage-control mode after Trump tweeted last Saturday that he fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Pence and the FBI.

Legal experts said the tweets could be used by Mueller’s team in building an obstruction of justice case against the president.

Hours after the tweet appeared, Trump attorney John Dowd said he wrote it, a claim that, if true, could limit the president's legal exposure.

Many of Trump’s closest friends, such as Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, are warning him to stay out of it and focus instead on muscling through his legislative agenda.

“The best approach for the president, in my opinion, is to drive his popularity by creating a bipartisan consensus on such things as infrastructure, education and other matters,” Ruddy said in an email. “Trump has the ability to be a great unifier, and popular presidents are not removed from office.”