No one in the White House was prepared.
Friday began with the now-routine flurry of tweets from President Donald Trump — two about the acquittal of an undocumented immigrant accused of a 2015 killing in San Francisco, one about his tax legislation. White House staffers, fresh from their inhouse holiday party Thursday, prepared to welcome the press to the annual media party later in the afternoon.
There were no leaks in advance that former national security adviser Michael Flynn planned to plead guilty to a single count of lying to FBI agents — lies he told in January, after Trump took office, about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition last December. Flynn has promised to cooperate fully with the Mueller investigation and, according to prosecutors, says his Russia outreach was ordered by two other top members of Trump’s transition team, claims that bring the probe deeper than ever into the Trump White House.
Trump told associates as recently as last weekend — while he was visiting his Mar-a-Lago resort for Thanksgiving — that he isn’t worried about the outcome of Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which has grown to encompass his response to the investigation.
But there is a growing sense of dread among Trump’s closest confidants that the noose is tightening — if not around the president, then around his closest advisers and family members.
Flynn is the second Trump associate known to have pleaded guilty, after campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts. His plea deal, struck in October after months of silent cooperation, was unsealed the same day multiple charges were unsealed against Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and another campaign official, Rick Gates, both of whom have pleaded not guilty to money laundering and other charges.
One person close to the White House described the mood this way: “What they’re freaked out about is that there are no leaks. Papadopoulos didn’t leak. Flynn didn’t leak. They feel like they can’t trust anyone. Their own counsel didn’t know.”
Senior White House aides downplayed the potential fallout from Flynn’s guilty plea. In the West Wing, Trump’s advisers largely went about their day as though the drama at the federal courthouse down the street wasn’t happening — trying to keep the focus on tax reform.
“I know this is hard for people to understand this, but people inside the White House are genuinely not concerned,” said one former White House official.
But there were signs of stress. The press office abruptly canceled a scheduled pool spray with visiting Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of Libya. Trump appeared only for brief and relatively restrained remarks at the media holiday party, and many senior administration officials appeared only briefly or skipped the party altogether, a departure from prior years under Trump’s predecessors.
The president, who jabbed at the media at a White House Halloween trick-or-treating event for children of the press corps, used the holiday party to commend the press for having ‘stamina’ like him. “Very special people, at least many of you,” Trump said, according to a person who was there.
Friday’s explosive Flynn news came just as the Senate was preparing to vote on a major overhaul of the tax code, a top priority for Trump, who has yet to achieve a legislative victory since taking office.
Top White House aides continued to hold meetings Friday about the bill and other top policy issues. One White House aide said the Flynn news was not being openly discussed at the meetings.
“People are generally nose to the stone on their issues and don’t have time to think about this stuff,” another aide said.
People close to the White House said Trump’s rosy view of the probe comes straight from his lawyer, Ty Cobb, who has repeatedly predicted that the investigation will wrap up quickly without ensnaring the president.
During his visit to Mar-a-Lago last weekend, according to friends who spoke to him there, Trump shrugged off the Russia investigation, telling people it would all be wrapped up soon and citing Cobb’s advice with confidence, even though some of his close outside advisers have for months been lobbying him to shake up his legal team.
Cobb released a statement on Friday that distanced the White House from Flynn, who was once under consideration to be Trump’s vice president. The statement identified Flynn as a former Obama administration official and said he worked at the White House for just 25 days.
“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” Cobb said. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
Some Republicans outside the White House have privately raised concerns that Cobb is not serving the president well and is overly confident about the president’s exposure. Still, other people close to the White House nonetheless think Cobb is on to something.
“I don’t think Ty Cobb is wrong to be positive when it comes to his client,” said Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for the president’s personal legal team. “I can’t speak to the people in his orbit. But when it comes to the president himself, I think it’s all going to go away. It’s going to be a clean bill of health and he’s going to finally be able to get back to the work without this hanging over him.”
But even some of the president’s closest confidants on Friday were expressing some skepticism about the president’s confidence. “Trump still thinks there’s nothing to it and they have nothing,” said one person close to the White House. “I think the fact that they did it on one count should be very alarming to the president.”
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