The Memo: Trump lowers the temperature on Mueller probe

Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE and special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE look safer — for now — from the threat of being fired by President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE

After a fraught period when both men were squarely in the president’s crosshairs, several recent developments have suggested the danger level has fallen a notch or two.  

Rudy Giuliani, a new addition to the president’s outside legal team, has suggested the probe could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion soon; Rosenstein has reportedly assured Trump that he is not personally a target; and the president’s rhetoric has become slightly more conciliatory.


The second of those three developments, first reported by Bloomberg, may turn out to be the most significant.

“If he’s been told by the deputy attorney general that he is not a target, perhaps it is time for the Justice Department to say so publicly,” Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, told The Hill.

There was a further development on Friday evening when The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE had said a week ago that he would have to consider resigning if Rosenstein were fired. 

Speculation about a move against Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe, rose to a crescendo following raids on the home, hotel room and office of Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, less than two weeks ago.

Trump at that time targeted Rosenstein in tweets. With regard to Mueller, he told reporters at the White House that “many people have said ‘you should fire him.’ ” 

Reporting from The Hill during that period also indicated that some people in Trump’s orbit who had previously argued against ousting Rosenstein had reversed course.

In recent days, however, Trump has mostly been less aggressive toward Rosenstein and Mueller, even as he has lambasted another antagonist, former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyGiuliani told investigators it was OK to 'throw a fake' during campaign DOJ watchdog unable to determine if FBI fed Giuliani information ahead of 2016 election Biden sister has book deal, set to publish in April MORE, who has hit the promotional trail in support of his new book. 

That said, his anger at Comey and his attitude toward the probe cannot be completely separated — and they could yet prove an explosive combination.

In a Friday night tweet, Trump alleged that Comey had “illegally leaked classified documents to the press,” spurring the appointment of a special counsel. Comey denies the information was classified.

Trump’s tweet seemed to call into question the legitimacy of Mueller’s probe, arguing that it was “established based on an illegal act.”

People close to Trump say there is no immediate plan to fire Rosenstein, or to make what they euphemistically term other “personnel changes” right now.

Rosenstein’s assertion that Trump was not a target of the investigation is reported to have mollified Trump sufficiently that he told associates afterward that it was not the time to fire either him or Mueller.  

The addition of Giuliani to Trump’s legal team, announced on Thursday, pointed in the same direction. In a statement released by lead lawyer Jay Sekulow, Trump was quoted as saying that Giuliani “wants to get this matter quickly resolved for the good of the country." 

Giuliani told The Washington Post that he hoped “we can negotiate an end to this.” He told CNN that “a little push” could bring the investigation to a conclusion. He suggested that there was even the possibility that everything that still needed to be done to “comply” with Mueller's demands could be done in “a couple of weeks.” 

The idea of some kind of negotiation to bring an end to an investigation perplexed some legal experts. 

“Prosecutors don’t settle their prosecutions,” said Joyce White Vance, who served as the United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama under former President Obama. “I can’t remember, ever, a prosecutor saying, ‘OK, we’ll terminate this investigation in three or four weeks.' " 

"That is just not how the work is done,” Vance added. “This is not a deal. This is serious work — determining the truth and reaching the just outcome.”

The lead White House lawyer on Mueller-related matters, Ty Cobb, told The Hill that Giuliani and others working for the president were in fact working toward a Trump interview with investigators that might speed the probe to a conclusion.

“Rudy and others on the president's team have made it clear they would like to work quickly and diligently and set the terms of an interview,” Cobb said. “And such an interview would ideally be a catalyst to conclude this long experience.”

There has been some gossip in Trump circles that Cobb himself might be displeased by Giuliani’s arrival, but Cobb vigorously contested that.  

He noted that he and the former New York City mayor had “made our bones together as prosecutors” fighting against organized crime decades ago. He said he was “delighted” that Giuliani was joining the president’s team. 

As for media coverage of the changes that have seen Giuliani and two Florida-based lawyers, Jane Serene Raskin and Marty Raskin, join the president’s team, Cobb observed: “For the last month, people have been saying that Jay [Sekulow] was awfully understaffed. And now they are asking, unfairly, ‘Why did you hire all these lawyers?’ "

Beyond the additional personnel, Trump himself has seemed to adopt a more conciliatory tone.

At a news conference with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida this week, Trump said, “They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of [Mueller and Rosenstein] for the last three months, four months, five months. And they’re still here.”

That said, predicting Trump’s next move has long been a fool’s errand. Some people in his orbit insist that his underlying anger about the investigation is as strong as ever.  

“Rosenstein is still at risk of being fired, especially because [Trump's] anger has not subsided,” said one GOP operative. 

Vance, the former Alabama district attorney, added her own note of caution regarding Trump’s attitudes.

“It seems to me that he goes up and down and it is maybe not helpful to try to assess things minute by minute,” she said.  

“We’ll only find out when he actually fires them. Many of these firings seem to have happened out of the blue.” 

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