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Most White House staff on Mueller: "I know nothing"

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

With a West Wing under legal siege, the mood in most of the building — especially on the topic of Russia — is quieter than you might think.

The big picture: Cable news anchors sometimes ask me what the mood is like inside the White House during these mad Mueller news cycles. Depends which part of the building you’re talking about. Trump might be raging at the TV in the dining room adjoining the Oval Office. But elsewhere in the West Wing, it’s quiet and unremarkable, aides tell me.

  • "It’s not like West Wing staffers are huddling around together talking about Russia. They never talk about Russia! And the vast majority of staff want to get the hell out of the room at the mere mention of the word."
  • Priceless bit of color: Staffers tell me that when Ty Cobb was Trump's in-house lawyer on the investigation, they used to refer to trips to his downstairs office as "going to Russia."
  • "The reality is the vast majority of Trump’s staff — even his senior-most staff — are watching the bizarre show like the rest of the American public."
  • "Several have told me they think his legal team has been incompetent and sloppy — and have no idea what Rudy Giuliani is going to say next."
  • "They assume Trump and Rudy are coordinating behind the scenes. But staff are doing whatever they can to be able to honestly say: 'I know nothing.'"

In the debate club news cycles, Trump and Giuliani have teamed up to give us one of the most incredibly weird few days in the 13 months of the Mueller probe:

  • POTUS and Rudy have ignited what is essentially a debate club topic. National news is engulfed by 24/7 debate over arcane and unresolved legal hypotheticals that left even Sen. Ted Cruz, who prides himself on his constitutional scholarship, grasping for 18 seconds for words, ultimately to say he hadn't studied whether a president can pardon himself.
  • We're now watching constitutional law experts debate on Twitter and on cable news whether a president can obstruct justice and whether a president can pardon himself. This isn't normal.
  • But it's clear from Giuliani's own statements that the president's team is acutely aware that the awesome, above-the-law powers of the presidency — so brashly articulated in the Trump lawyers' memo the N.Y. Times scooped — are constrained by Congress' equally awesome power to impeach.

Sentence of the day ... WashPost: "[P]rivate moves by Trump’s attorneys and advisers indicate that — despite the president’s public bravado — they are readying for a fraught legal confrontation that could have far-reaching consequences."

N.Y. Times Quote of the Day ... Peter Shane, a law professor at The Ohio State University and co-author of a casebook on separation of powers, quoted in a front-pager, "Trump and His Lawyers Embrace a Vision of Vast Executive Power":

  • “We overthrew control by a monarchy, and the Constitution signals in multiple places that the president is subject to law.”

P.S. "Special Counsel Robert Mueller accused Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, of attempting to tamper with witnesses in the federal case charging him with money laundering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Ukraine." (Bloomberg)

  • "Prosecutors ... cited ... telephone records ... and 'documents recovered pursuant to a court-authorized search of Manafort’s iCloud account."
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