The Memo: Trump’s Mueller problems deepen, worrying allies

President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE’s problems are deepening after a dramatic week in the Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate 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 MORE probe, and even his allies are worried about what might come next.

Trump has become increasingly enraged about the special counsel’s probe after a week in which his former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and affirmed his full cooperation with Mueller.


Mueller also stepped away from a cooperation agreement with former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Yellen should utilize the resources available before pushing new regulations Huawei paid Tony Podesta 0K for White House lobbying MORE, accusing Manafort of lying. And the author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi publicized a draft plea agreement with Mueller, even as he rejected that deal.

“It is something that has again taken the president way off message, and it creates a sense of political doom or disaster,” said one Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “It’s hard to tell what you’re dealing with — until you actually have charges.”

Another GOP operative had an even pithier summation: “Darkness falling,” the source said.

The Cohen deal is the most troubling development for Trump, given that his former fixer is now acknowledging that talks about building a Trump Tower in Moscow went on for months longer than he had originally stated.

Cohen says the proposed project was only formally abandoned in June 2016, when Trump was virtually assured of the GOP presidential nomination. Cohen had earlier said that the idea had been shelved in January 2016, before the first GOP caucuses were held in Iowa.

Separately, BuzzFeed News reported that one element of the proposed tower deal would have installed Russian President Vladimir Putin in a $50 million penthouse.

There is nothing criminal about such a plan, but it is the kind of personal, striking detail that adds to Trump’s political difficulties on Russia. 

Trump canceled a proposed meeting with Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, though the stated reason for that decision was the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and, specifically, the recent seizure of three Ukrainian vessels by the Russians.

He did nonetheless have "informal conversations" with Putin and other world leaders at a dinner on Friday evening, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Beyond last week’s developments, there are several other potential pitfalls that worry Trump allies. 

One is the relentlessness and secrecy with which Mueller works, a pattern that causes new developments to land like no-warning bombshells. 

Another is the possibility of the Trump family coming under increasing focus — the new legal filings in the Cohen case describe him talking about the project with unspecified "family members." 

A third factor is the incoming Congress where, in January, Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives, with the ability to set the agenda and subpoena witnesses.

Referring to the new Democratic-led House, the GOP strategist with White House ties said: “It’s a huge problem. I don’t think [Trump] really understands what is coming at him until it does. He is used to dealing with the reality of what the message is today but not the reality of what things will be like a few months ahead.”

Trump, his immediate circle and some of his outside allies are publicly evincing confidence. 

Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, has insisted in several interviews that there is no contradiction between Cohen’s current story and the version of events provided by the president. The proposed Trump Tower Moscow was apparently one of the issues addressed in Trump’s written answers to questions from Mueller, which were submitted almost two weeks ago.

Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Jan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Jan. 6 panel subpoenas Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and leaders MORE, the longtime Trump ally who has come under scrutiny over leaked documents about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE’s campaign, insisted again to The Hill in a Friday afternoon phone interview that he had done nothing wrong.

Asked if he had ever discussed WikiLeaks with Trump, Stone replied, “Never. On no occasion — as I said on 'Meet the Press,' and as I have said under oath. Never — and the government has presented no evidence to the contrary.”

Stone insists that he is being “targeted” for his support of Trump and his vehement opposition to Clinton.

Trump himself has repeatedly lashed out at Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt.” On Friday, from Buenos Aires, he tweeted a defense against the charge that the Trump Tower talks were suspicious.

He said that he had continued to run his business while seeking the presidency — “very legal & very cool,” he asserted — and added that he had “Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”

The tone of the president’s tweets, however, has itself sparked speculation that he is feeling the pressure as never before. 

It is also notable that developments pertaining to Cohen appear to fuel his ire in an especially potent fashion. Trump was infuriated by the original raids on Cohen back in April.

Mark Zaid, a D.C.-based attorney who specializes in national security matters and has represented clients from both parties, said that while it was clear the stress and pressure on Trump was increasing, it was important to keep in mind “that does not necessarily equate to criminal culpability.”

Zaid added, however, that the outlook for Trump is becoming bleaker all the time.

“I would say with every close confidant who goes down in flames — as we have seen now on multiple occasions — the waters surrounding Trump get deeper,” Zaid said. “The question, of course, is will he drown?”

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