Three months before Robert Mueller’s report was even delivered to the Department of Justice, Donald Trump was already meeting with his lawyers about how to resist, combat, and impede the possible Democratic investigations that might arise from the special counsel’s findings.
In multiple conference calls and closed-door gatherings at the White House that have taken place since January, the president began mapping out, with both White House and outside counsel, how to handle the coming onslaught of congressional probes and subpoenas aimed at his administration, his family, his business empire, according to three people with knowledge of the various conversations.
By February, Trump was actively asking those around him about the ways in which subpoenas from Democratic-controlled House committees could be fiercely challenged, a senior administration official said. By that time, those close to Trump say he had already settled, firmly, on a path forward.
President Trump’s opinion—an assessment reinforced by the advice of his lawyers and friends—was that he and his legal war council shouldn’t give an inch to congressional investigators and liberal lawmakers. He wanted his legal teams’ approaches, out of the gate, to be far more ostentatiously aggressive than it had been during the two-year Trump-Russia saga.
By Easter weekend at his private Florida club Mar-a-Lago, following the release of the redacted report, the president was telling confidants that he was executing the legal strategy against the Democrats that was long his inclination.
“[We’re] gonna give them hell,” Trump said, with a smirk, according to a source with direct knowledge.
Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers who repped him during the Mueller investigation, said that over this past Christmas break, he had a sit-down with two former White House counsels—one was a Democrat, the other Republican—to chat about the upcoming legal and investigative hellscape for the president. (Giuliani declined to name names.)
“They said don’t adopt the strategy you had earlier,” Giuliani told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, referencing the White House’s prior strategy of willingly offering troves of information to Mueller’s team.
“This is not a Justice Department investigation, this is a political investigation for partisan purposes,” Giuliani said he was told at the meeting.
He said the two counsels then recommended Trump “hire lots of lawyers, and get ready for a knockout, drag-out fight over everything.”
“Why would you voluntarily cooperate with your enemies who have already announced that you’re guilty?” he added.
Giuliani took their advice to heart—and straight to Trump’s ear. Naturally, the president, who long before becoming leader of the free world leaned heavily on legal threats in his business and celebrity past, was more than happy to take it.
In recent weeks, the sight of adversaries like Reps. Adam Schiff (CA) and Jerry Nadler (NY), on TV being interviewed about investigating Trump and his administration, would send Trump into a rage, causing him to pick up the phone to call his personal attorneys to discuss how to hobble their coming inquiries, according to two knowledgeable sources. He would sometimes then reference these TV clips in subsequent meetings with his attorneys in person.
Starting early this year, the president demanded briefings on his options for how to best go on the offensive. Fairly quickly, he and his team came to an agreement for their standard operating procedure: wage public-relations warfare, refuse to hand over documents (including those related to his taxes), wield executive privilege, block people from sitting for interviews or hearings, and sue if need be. In these meetings, Trump would repeatedly stress that “[we] can’t cooperate” with what was coming down the pike on Capitol Hill.
“The president independently came to that judgment, and I don’t know a lawyer of his, inside or out [of the White House], who doesn’t recommend the same thing,” Giuliani recalled. “I remember over a period of time talking [in meetings with President Trump] about how Congress certainly isn’t operating in good faith, so we better not open up our bathrobe like we did with the special counsel…[And] since we had already turned over everything [to Mueller’s team], why should we turn over them again?”
Over the past few days, Trump, his administration, and his attorneys have started turning the president’s pugnacious desires to reality, including in court papers.
On Monday, the White House instructed Carl Kline, a former White House official who oversaw security clearances, not to comply with a House subpoena, arguing that the subpoena “unconstitutionally encroaches on fundamental Executive Branch interests.” Kline reportedly approved Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s security clearance in spite of concerns from career officials.
On Tuesday, the Treasury Department and Trump’s legal team breezed past the deadline imposed early this month by Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, who demanded six years’ worth of President Trump’s long-hidden tax returns and related IRS documentation. The committee received zilch, setting the stage for a vicious, protracted court battle.
Then, in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, the president flat-out said he opposed his former or current White House officials testifying before Congress because Democratic lawmakers were “obviously very partisan.” The Post had reported that the White House had planned to fight the congressional subpoena of former White House counsel Don McGahn, a major figure in the Mueller report.
By Wednesday, Trump was telling reporters at the White House, “We’re fighting all the subpoenas.”
On the same day, the Justice Department said in a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that John Gore, a top official in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, would not appear for a deposition scheduled for Thursday. The committee, chaired by Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings, had authorized a subpoena of Gore earlier this month, and sought to grill him about his role in the Trump administration’s effort to add a question to the 2020 Census regarding U.S. citizenship.
On top of everything else this week, the president made the extraordinary move of suing Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in an attempt to thwart a House subpoena of Mazars, an accounting firm used by Trump and his business. When asked by The Daily Beast if Trump is also going to sue any other Democratic lawmakers on other committees probing his finances or taxes, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow indicated such action would be considered if a committee chair issued such a subpoena, noting, “each will be reviewed when issued.”
The back-to-back events of this week are likely merely a preview of the counter-offensives and legal fights to ensue in the remaining Trump years—and it’s a fight that the president seems to relish as an act of retribution.
On Wednesday morning, the president welcomed his former campaign adviser Michael Caputo and his family members to the Oval Office for a roughly half-hour get-together. Trump and his 2016 aide hadn’t spoken for the past two years, and in the time since Caputo had himself become a peripheral figure in the Russia investigations. According to Caputo, Trump told him, now that the Mueller investigation has wrapped, that he’d keep in touch.
The president also indicated to his former adviser that he wanted Democrats to pay for what they’ve done to him and his associates.
“It was very clear to me that the president isn’t the least bit intimidated about all the bluster in Washington about obstruction,” said Caputo. “My advice is for the Democrats to buckle up, based on what he said. It’s going to be a wild ride. The president made it clear during our conversation that he wants to go on the offensive, not stay on the defensive.”