'Like throwing gasoline onto a fire': Trump poised to shake up legal team as he goes on Mueller offensive

  • President Donald Trump is gearing up for a massive shakeup to his legal team as he prepares to take an aggressive approach to the Russia investigation.
  • Trump is reportedly considering firing White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who has advocated for a cooperative approach, and recently hired a controversial former federal prosecutor with a tendency to push conspiracy theories about the FBI.
  • One legal expert called the proceedings a "side show," adding that regardless of whom Trump hires and fires, it "won't impact the facts that are uncovered, nor Mueller's decisions on how to proceed."

President Donald Trump is gearing up to make massive changes to his legal team.

Trump is said to be considering firing White House lawyer Ty Cobb. John Dowd, Trump's personal defense attorney, is reportedly thinking about resigning. And on Monday, Trump added a controversial former federal prosecutor with a penchant for pushing conspiracy theories to his team.

The revelations add to a portrait of the president's escalating frustration over the two things that have hounded him most since he took office: the Russia investigation and the man in charge of it, special counsel Robert Mueller.

Last week yielded a slew of bombshell developments that indicate the Russia investigation is inching closer to the White House.

In particular, The New York Times reported on Saturday that Mueller has sent Trump's legal team a list of questions to answer. The questions will not take the place of an interview, but will rather serve as a starting point from which Mueller can ask follow-ups.

RELATED: A look at FBI Director Robert Mueller

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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Mueller's questions for Trump come as his lawyers have been working for months to sidestep or significantly narrow the scope of an interview between Mueller and their client, who has shown a tendency to exaggerate the facts and make misleading statements.

Shortly after Trump's attorneys received the questions, Dowd sent shockwaves through Washington by publicly calling for the Russia probe to be shut down. He walked his comments back on Monday, saying he and Trump's other lawyers were "blessed" to be communicating with the special counsel and would continue to work with his team.

While Dowd and Trump's other personal defense lawyer, Jay Sekulow, have taken a more combative public stance, Cobb has largely advocated for a cooperative approach with the special counsel since he first joined as a White House lawyer last year.

"It looks to me like they have too many conflicting power centers on their defense team, and all will be competing and giving advice that conflicts with one another," said Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the special counsel investigation into I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby during the 2003 "Plame affair."

"Ideally, a team settles on a single strategy and then executes that strategy with their whole team pulling as one," he added. "That is the opposite of what is happening here, where you have the confrontational strategy and the cooperation strategy on the same team."

Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert on criminal law, made a similar observation.

"There are two camps," he said. "The first group, which includes Ty Cobb, wants the President to stay away from Twitter and stop attacking Mueller, because doing that will only land Trump in more legal and political trouble. The second group wants Trump to fight back hard — to 'let Trump be Trump.'"

He added: "You can guess which strategy Trump himself prefers."

'Throwing gasoline onto a fire'

With his impending legal team shakeup, Trump appears to have settled on taking a more aggressive approach toward the Russia investigation.

A source with direct knowledge of Trump's thinking told Axios' Mike Allen that Cobb is "100 percent secure" in his job.

But if Trump is in fact weighing firing the White House lawyer, experts said it wouldn't come as a surprise.

"Cobb is an experienced DC attorney and is very adept at resolving issues to the benefit of his clients," said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the DOJ. "Dowd has been more vocal than Cobb as far as taking pot shots at Mueller and his team ... It seemed to be only a matter of time before Trump replaced Ty Cobb."

Meanwhile, on Monday, The New York Times reported that Trump added Joseph diGenova, a controversial former US attorney and conservative media personality, to his team.

DiGenova was the lead prosecutor in the Department of Justice's pursuit of Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry on corruption-related charges in the late 1980s. But a decade later, he and his wife, Victoria Toensing, built their reputations peddling unfounded conspiracies about the DOJ, Democrats, and the FBI.

DiGenova has characterized the Russia investigation as the FBI's attempt to "frame an incoming president with a false Russian conspiracy that never existed, and they knew it, and they plotted to ruin him as a candidate and then destroy him as a president."

Earlier this year, diGenova accused the FBI of using "false facts" to surveil members of the Trump campaign.

"Of course there was nothing," diGenova said. "There was never anything. It was done not for legitimate law enforcement reasons, not for national security reasons, but to create a false case against" Trump.

So far, 19 people have been charged with crimes in the Russia investigation, and five have pleaded guilty, including Trump's former national-security adviser and the Trump campaign's former deputy chairman.

"Bringing on diGenova will be like throwing gasoline onto a fire," Cramer said. While Mueller seeks to interview Trump in the obstruction case, "bringing in a new attorney who has been slinging arrows about a 'deep state' conspiracy theory within the FBI and insulting Jim Comey and others certainly won't facilitate any cooperative spirit between the White House and Mueller."

Many of Trump's aides were taken by surprise by Trump's latest hire. According to The Washington Post, Trump did not consult top advisers like chief of staff John Kelly or White House counsel Donald McGahn about bringing on diGenova. Instead, he made the decision after "watching television and calling friends," the report said.

Either way, Cramer said, hiring diGenova, "who has been mostly known latterly for his incendiary comments on television won't impact the facts that are uncovered, nor Mueller's decisions on how to proceed. It's just a side show."

Ohlin added one important caveat.

If "Trump gets more aggressive in attacking Mueller, it raises the likelihood that Trump will move to fire Mueller. That, in turn, will hasten impeachment."

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