WASHINGTON — Donald Trump and his senior White House aides are preparing for what they expect to be a prolonged and trying fight over whether the President, his campaign or his ring of associates had inappropriate contacts with Russian operatives during the 2016 election.
After initially dismissing the probe — which has ballooned into a Justice Department inquiry led by special counsel Robert Mueller — as nothing more than a politically motivated “witch hunt,” the White House’s top officials are beginning to realize that the drumbeat of stories about Russia could overshadow the administration’s objectives for months, if not years.
Trump is expected to hire attorney Marc Kasowitz to represent him as part of a team on matters related to the inquiry into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, according to a senior administration official and a person close to Trump. A source with knowledge of the matter told CNN the hiring process is not over and there are internal discussions on building out a team.
Trump and his aides have also discussed establishing a crisis communication effort led by advisers outside and inside the White House to combat allegations, sources tell CNN.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s controversial former campaign manager, has been seen in the White House to discuss possibly becoming the administration’s top adviser on crisis management as part of a broader effort to prepare for a long-term crisis related to the special counsel’s investigation, sources said.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, facing swirling questions about political pressure from Democrats, tapped former FBI head Mueller to lead the special counsel into Russia’s 2016 activities last week. The move was decried by the President and aides have tried to undercut the probe since Mueller was named.
But the possibility of Lewandowski coming into the White House signals that the administration is getting serious about its defense.
Lewandowski, according to sources with knowledge of the plans, has been pitching himself as a Trump confidante who knows Trump well and could help fight the constant stories about Russia and Trump.
A controversial choice
Bringing Lewandowski on board could be controversial in the West Wing.
Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and top aide, and Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and close adviser, are both opposed to the plan.
Trump, as he prepared for the general election against Hillary Clinton, fired the New Hampshire operative in June 2016 as his campaign sputtered through the summer. Many Republicans heralded the move at the time as a sign Trump’s campaign was getting serious.
Lewandowski has remained close to Trump, though. Evan after his firing, the former aide regularly spoke with Trump as a candidate and continued to do so after he became president.
After Trump won, Lewandowski opened Avenue Strategies, a consulting firm with Barry Bennett, who formerly managed Ben Carson’s unsuccessful bid for president. The project never got off the ground and Lewandowski quit the job earlier this year amid scrutiny that he was looking to cash in on his relationship with Trump, but it remains an open question whether his lobbying deals would be made public if he came into the White House.
Lewandowski did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN.
Lengthy legal challenge
At the same time that the White House strategizes about how to communicate during a drawn-out controversy, it is also preparing the President for what could be a prolonged legal challenge.
Kasowitz has represented Trump on a “wide range of litigation matters for over 15 years,” according to the biography posted on the website for his firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP.
Kasowitz has not responded to requests for comment.
This wasn’t the result of Kasowitz being partners at the same firm as Sen. Joe Lieberman, once considered a leading candidate to head the FBI. Now, the President has decided he wants to see a broader range of candidates for the job, hitting the restart button on the search for a new FBI director.
Trump’s inner circle of advisers met earlier this month to discuss hiring a personal team of attorneys to represent him through the special counsel’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Michael Cohen, the President’s longtime personal lawyer from New York, was summoned to the West Wing for meetings.
The preparations inside the West Wing mimic what other White Houses have done when facing prolonged controversies/ They also signal a change inside the Trump White House: While the president and his acolytes swept into office pledging to shake up Washington, they are now looking backward to glean guidance from how Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton handled controversy.
Reagan, facing swirling questions about the secret sale of arms to Iran, brought on then-Sen. Howard Baker as White House chief of staff and A.B. Culvahouse as White House counsel to lead him through the investigation.
And Clinton, facing impeachment over the independent counsel’s inquiry into the Whitewater real estate scandal and then his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, turned to a host of legal minds both inside and outside the White House.
Greg Craig was brought into the White House in 1998 to lead Clinton’s internal defense during the impeachment proceedings. But two powerful attorneys — Robert Bennett and David Kendall — helped represent Clinton from outside the White House during the scandal and served as Clinton’s go-to representatives on the host of swirling controversies.
Lawyers inside the Trump White House have already begun researching impeachment procedures, two people briefed on the discussions tell CNN, in an effort to prepare for what officials still believe is a distant possibility that the President could have to fend off attempts to remove him from office.