To hear White House lawyer Ty Cobb tell it, in a mid-January CBS interview, special counsel Robert Mueller will wrap up his investigation in just a few weeks.
That may sound like a head-scratching prediction, given that the lead Russia investigator has yet to interview key witnesses like former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and President Donald Trump himself. But it’s not Cobb’s first.
“I’d be embarrassed if this is still haunting the White House by Thanksgiving and worse if it’s still haunting him by year end,” Cobb told Reuters in August. In December, Cobb — who leads the White House’s legal response to Mueller’s Russia probe — told POLITICO he thought the special counsel could exonerate Trump by the end of January.
That has prompted snickering among some of Cobb’s peers. “When I see these predictions that Mueller will be done by Thanksgiving, year end, March 1, etc., I’m reminded that marijuana is legal in D.C. and wonder just who’s lighting up,” said a lawyer who represents a senior Trump aide immersed in the probe.
But a day after reports that Trump sought to fire Mueller in June, the rationale for his West Wing lawyer’s seeming over-optimism may be coming into clearer view.
Cobb, legal experts and political operatives say, has been trying to keep a lid on his temperamental client — downplaying the threat of Mueller’s investigation as a way of preventing Trump from firing him. As lawmakers of both parties have warned, that move would make matters only worse for Trump.
“I’ve thought for a long time that Cobb was speaking to an audience of one and that rigorous allegiance to reality was not a prerequisite,” the lawyer representing a Trump staffer added.
Cobb might also be pursuing a public relations goal — signaling to the outside world that Trump has nothing to hide from Mueller and that he is not obstructing justice. That puts him at odds with other Trump lawyers and associates who counsel a more guarded approach toward Mueller. They include Trump’s personal lawyers, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow.
For now, Cobb — who is distantly related to the late baseball great of the same name — has successfully put his stamp on the White House strategy. Arguing to Trump that the more he cooperates the sooner the investigation is likely to wrap up, Cobb has seen to it that nearly two dozen current and former aides have given interviews with Mueller’s team without any invocation of executive privilege.
He has also helped rein in Trump’s tweeting, reminding the president that his social media missives can be used as evidence against him. Trump has written 22 tweets since his inauguration dubbing the Russia probe a “witch hunt” — but only four of them since Cobb arrived at the White House in August.
But the strategic divide over how to handle Mueller was on display just this week, after Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he was “looking forward” to speaking with Mueller under oath. In a statement hours later, Cobb hedged on whether Trump would testify under oath while affirming that the president is “looking forward to speaking with Mr. Mueller.”
Dowd, meanwhile, took a sharply different tack. “I will make the decision on whether the President talks to the special counsel,” he said in a statement the next day. “I have not made any decision yet.”
The difference of opinion dates back to last summer: Soon after his arrival at the White House, Cobb clashed with White House counsel Don McGahn about how much cooperation to give Mueller. The dispute surfaced in a conversation between Cobb and Dowd that took place within earshot of a New York Times reporter seated at a nearby table at a Washington restaurant.
The awkward Cobb-Dowd dynamic should be expected given their different interests, legal experts say. Cobb’s responsibility is to protect the White House as an institution of the executive branch, while Dowd’s job is to protect his client, Donald Trump, not as president but as an individual.
“I don’t know enough to say who’s right,” said Robert Bennett, a former law partner of Cobb’s. “But the president has so many cooks in the kitchen, god knows what’s going to come out at the end.”
Cobb also must contend with Trump’s volatile nature and impatience with unwelcome legal counsel.
“It’s very difficult to represent a client, any client, who does not follow your advice and doesn’t tell you everything you need to know,” said Bennett, who worked as a personal attorney to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “Any lawyer is going to be frustrated by not having a full deck to operate with.”
Trump’s inner circle overwhelmingly opposes ousting Mueller, and aides were relieved that McGahn refused to press Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein into examining grounds for firing the special counsel in June.
A source familiar with the situation said McGahn never directly rebuked the president: He simply ignored the president’s request, and told Bannon and then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus that he’d resign if Trump didn’t drop the idea.
In fact, questions about Trump’s views on Mueller have become an almost daily feature of Cobb’s workload. He routinely sends the same quote to media outlets knocking down the notion of an imminent repeat of the Nixon-era Saturday Night Massacre, in which the Republican president kept replacing his Justice Department leadership until he found someone to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.
“As the White House has repeatedly and emphatically said for months, there is no consideration at the WH for terminating the Special Counsel,” Cobb wrote POLITICO in mid-December.
Cobb wasn’t the first pick for the White House job. Several others passed on it, including former George W. Bush White House attorneys Emmet Flood and William Burck.
Another challenge Cobb faces is just how much to encourage the president to speak to Mueller, given Trump’s history of fudging the truth, including in courtroom depositions from his real estate business.
“The problem he’s got is he has a client who he wants to be transparent but most of what he says are obfuscations and half-truths,” said a second attorney working on the Russia investigation. “That’s the conundrum. … Do you let him talk and he’s got to tell the truth, or do you tell him to shut up? I think that’s his problem. I think that any lawyer who works for Trump has got an impossible job.”
Cobb brings to Trump’s legal team decades of experience from both sides of multiple previous Washington special counsel probes. He was a top investigator examining corruption allegations against Ronald Reagan’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Samuel Pierce, and he also represented a lawyer swept up in the Iran-Contra investigation. During the Clinton administration, Cobb worked for clients involved in Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater probe.
His expertise has been an asset that some of Trump’s allies have urged him to heed. “Take a deep breath, follow Ty Cobb’s lead, trust the process,” former Trump legal spokesman Mark Corallo told POLITICO in early December after Mueller announced a guilty plea by former national security adviser Michael Flynn that stemmed from Flynn’s lying to the FBI.
But Cobb has his critics too. Before his falling out with the president earlier this month over controversial comments in author Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury,” Bannon urged the president in private to take a more aggressive stance against Mueller.
The conservative website Breitbart, which Bannon led until January, repeatedly attacked Cobb and called his timetables “disastrously wrong.”
Cobb on Thursday declined to comment on the media reports about Trump’s June call to fire Mueller “out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process.”
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