President Trump stepped up his attacks against Robert S. Mueller III on Sunday even as some Republican allies cautioned the president against any move to fire the special counsel, who is carrying out a broad investigation arising from Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Tensions over the Mueller probe gained intensity from the firing late Friday night of Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions fired McCabe just hours before he would have qualified for the full government pension given to law enforcement officers.
Trump, who had targeted McCabe, publicly cheered his removal.
McCabe is expected to be a significant witness in the Mueller investigation. News reports said that he kept notes about his encounters with Trump as well as memos about his conversations with fired FBI director James Comey. Mueller's investigators have asked questions of witnesses that suggest they are looking at whether Trump's firing of Comey was part of an effort to obstruct justice.
According to Justice Department officials, internal FBI overseers recommended that McCabe be fired over a matter unrelated to the Mueller probe — his handling of information about the FBI's investigation of allegations against Hillary Clinton.
But Sessions' decision to dismiss him, and the speed with which that happened, quickly became a talking point for both critics and defenders of the president in the context of the Russia investigation, which for months has cast a cloud over Trump's presidency.
The president, who spent a sunny Sunday at his golf property in Virginia, began the day with a series of caustic early-morning tweets aimed at McCabe, Comey and Mueller.
One expressed doubts concerning whether McCabe had indeed documented details about their conversations. Trump tweeted that McCabe "never took notes when he was with me" and added that the memos were probably written at a later date "to help his own agenda."
"Can we call them Fake Memos?" the president asked rhetorically.
When dealing with a sensitive legal matter, law enforcement personnel often document encounters in as much detail as they can recall, immediately after the fact, in what are known as contemporaneous memos.
Another presidential tweet accused Comey of lying to congressional investigators months ago, and yet another suggested that the investigative team of Mueller, a lifelong Republican, was tainted by political partisanship.
That tweet marked the second day in a row in which Trump had publicly mentioned the special counsel by name, despite urgings from his legal team to refrain from doing so.
Speculation that the president might be preparing to move against Mueller took on new energy Saturday, when one of his lawyers, John Dowd, suggested that the McCabe affair should serve as a prelude to a forced end to the special counsel's investigation.
Late Sunday, another of Trump's lawyers, Ty Cobb, sent a statement to several news organizations insisting that the president was not planning to fire Mueller.
"In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the administration, the White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller," said Cobb, who has repeatedly appeared to be the member of Trump's legal team most intent on avoiding a confrontation with Mueller's office.
Dowd's earlier words drew a blunt warning Sunday from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has said consistently that any attempt by the White House to halt Mueller's work would be disastrous for Trump.
"If he tried to do that, it would be the beginning of the end of his presidency," said Graham, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We are a rule-of-law nation."
Interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union," Graham said that Mueller could only be dismissed for cause.
"I see no cause," the senator said. "I think he's doing a good job."
"There are many Republicans who share my view," he pointedly added.
Another South Carolina Republican, Rep. Trey Gowdy, took aim at Dowd, who had expressed hope Saturday that the "brilliant and courageous example" set by the firing of McCabe would "bring an end to the alleged Russia Collusion investigation."
Dowd's comments made it appear that Trump had something to hide, Gowdy said on "Fox News Sunday."
"The president's attorney frankly does him a disservice when he says that, and when he frames the investigation that way," said Gowdy, who chairs the House Oversight Committee and is not running for reelection.
"If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it."
But Gowdy said if Trump did move against Mueller, "I'm not sure the House can do a lot."
One of the few Republicans who has spoken out strongly against Trump's behavior on a wider range of issues predicted that the president would see a groundswell of opposition to any attempt to end the special counsel's investigation.
"I don't know what the designs are on Mueller, but it seems to be building toward that," Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said on "State of the Union."
He said he would expect "considerable pushback in the next couple of days, urging the president not to go there."
Flake has announced plans to retire from the Senate and is exploring the possibility of challenging Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020.
Democrats have long been harshly critical of Trump's stance toward the Mueller investigation. They also insist that large numbers of Republican officials are privately horrified by the president's behavior.
"I hear so many Republican senators grumble about his ethics, about his name-calling," Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"I think at some point Republican enablers in the House and Senate are going to say publicly what they've been saying privately," he added. "And that's when things change and we see a president back off this kind of name-calling, not telling the truth, sending out these tweets, all that."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), also on "Meet the Press," expressed misgivings about the circumstances of McCabe's firing, hours before his birthday would have made him eligible for the full pension.
"I don't like the way it happened," Rubio said. "He [McCabe] should have been allowed to finish through the weekend."
Although officials say the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility laid out a case for firing McCabe in a not-yet-released internal report, Rubio said the president "obviously … doesn't like McCabe, and he's made that pretty clear now for over a year."
Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that the investigation ought to run its course.
"I don't see the president firing him," he said of Mueller.
The issue of whether McCabe will be stripped of his retirement benefits was still unclear Sunday.
Trump appeared to demand months ago that the former deputy director be fired in time to prevent him from collecting a pension earned over two decades of FBI service. Some experts on federal employment suggested, however, that any loss of retirement income could be prevented if a member of Congress hired McCabe, thus keeping him on the federal payroll for at least a few more days.
Several lawmakers quickly offered to do so, sometimes accompanying their overtures with sardonic commentary on Twitter.
One of them, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), tweeted, "Andrew call me. I could use a good two-day report on the biggest crime families in Washington, D.C."
Another Twitter message came from Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, a bitter opponent of Trump's immigration policies, saying it was important to "stand up to bullies."
"If you need a federal job, call me on Monday," the Illinois Democrat said in a tweet directed at McCabe. "I am serious."
5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from White House lawyer Ty Cobb.