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Trump rejecting Bannon's hard line against Mueller -- for now

President Donald Trump has decided -- for now -- to stick with his strategy of cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller, a day after the Russia investigation ensnared three of his campaign aides. That's despite being urged to take a harder line by his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

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Jeff Zeleny, Gloria Borger
Kevin Liptak (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Donald Trump has decided -- for now -- to stick with his strategy of cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller, a day after the Russia investigation ensnared three of his campaign aides. That's despite being urged to take a harder line by his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Bannon spoke with Trump following Monday's announcements from the special counsel, and advocated taking a harsher approach to Mueller, a person familiar with their conversation said. While Trump encouraged Bannon to lead the public charge against Mueller, the President made clear to aides Tuesday that he's not adopting Bannon's advice.

As the President stews about the recent developments in the Russia investigation, he's receiving conflicting arguments about how to proceed. His current legal team and strategy has the support of White House chief of staff John Kelly and -- perhaps most importantly -- members of the President's family, according to a source familiar with the dynamic.

In the wake of Bannon's criticism, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said again Tuesday the President had no plans of changing his tack with Mueller.

"I have a high degree of confidence that the facts in this case dictate the course that we're on," Cobb told CNN, "and have contributed to the special counsel's ability to move expeditiously -- and, ideally, to be in a position to reach a prompt resolution and conclusion."

Could reverse course

Even as Trump maintains his current approach, however, people close to him acknowledge he could reverse himself at some point and determine the advice from his legal team isn't working. Trump is expecting further indictments of his campaign associates, his confidants say, but unexpected moves by Mueller could spur him to adopt a tougher strategy.

A person close to the President said that more donors and outside friends are starting to wonder if Bannon is right, saying: "The thinking is 'you will take the same abuse whether you go after (Mueller) or you don't.' "

Bannon's calls to take a harder line against Mueller -- including pushing to cut his funding and insisting he limit the scope of his investigation -- were seen by some inside the White House as at odds with the strategy of representing a client who has nothing to hide. The administration has already been cooperating, including turning over troves of email, in a decision that cannot suddenly be undone.

"This is Bannon's wishful thinking," a person close to the President said. "It's never going to happen. It's just not going to happen."

But the very public suggestions from Bannon do allow the President to have an outside-inside strategy: cooperating with the investigation internally in hopes of reaching a faster conclusion, even while supporting those who loudly criticize it from the outside.

The conversations about a legal strategy took center stage on Tuesday at the White House, where press secretary Sarah Sanders said the President did not support Bannon's call to squeeze funding for the special counsel's office or to push back harder on Mueller.

"No," Sanders said. "I'm not sure what we'd push back against. All they've done is come up with ways and shown more and more that there was no connection between the Trump campaign and collusion with Russia."

Asked directly whether the President was pleased with his current legal team, Sanders said: "I'm not sure how he couldn't."

"All of the revelations that have taken place over the last several days and hours have nothing to do with the President and have nothing to do with the campaign," Sanders said. "I think the further we get into it, the more and more we see that happen."

A day after two of Trump's campaign aides were indicted and a third was revealed to have pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI -- with whom he's now cooperating -- Trump made repeated attempts to return to his governing agenda, which he's urgently working to revive.

A pall over the West Wing

But even as Trump looks ahead to a tax reform fight and a lengthy trip to Asia, there remained a pall over the West Wing as aides and associates continued to grapple with the contents of Monday's legal announcements.

While most of Trump's staff -- and the President himself -- had long expected former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates to be indicted by the special counsel, the guilty plea by George Papadopoulos, a campaign foreign policy adviser, came seemingly from nowhere.

Aides who worked on the campaign struggled to remember the man who court documents revealed sought to arrange meetings between members of the Trump campaign and top ranking Kremlin officials.

The notion that such an unassuming figure could be caught in Mueller's net had some Trump aides on edge. The suggestion in the documents that he is cooperating with the FBI investigation -- including the possibility that he's worn a wire to collect information from other campaign associates -- has prompted a degree of consternation among Trump associates, who now wonder who else might be working with Mueller's team.

Members of Trump's staff are "freaked out," one person close to the White House said, with some aides wondering "who has been trying to bait me?"

The President himself is similarly concerned there could be other unforeseen indictments coming down that neither he nor his legal team have anticipated.

"He's insane about it because he's wondering how many of these things are there out there that I don't know about?" the person close to the President said.

Trump remains focused elsewhere

The White House insists that Trump's focus is elsewhere -- namely, his upcoming push on tax reform and the 12-day slog through Asia which commences on Friday.

During a series of meetings meant to bolster his push for tax reform, Trump ignored questions about Monday's dramatic series of events. He also ignored questions about whether he would work to short-circuit the Russia investigation, either by moving to dismiss Mueller or by pardoning his associates caught up in Mueller's probe.

"Thank you, all. Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. Thank you," Trump said after a reporter asked him in the Roosevelt Room if he was considering a pardon for Manafort, the onetime chairman of his presidential campaign who on Monday surrendered himself to law enforcement. The media was soon gone from the room.

He remained similarly mum on questions about Papadopoulos, who was arrested over the summer by the FBI and has been cooperating with the investigation since.

Outwardly, Trump was attempting to remain focused on the tax reform push, which will reach a head on Wednesday when congressional Republicans unveil specifics of their plan. Trump has asked key members of his administration -- including daughter Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin -- to forgo tagging along on his upcoming trip to Asia to instead remain in Washington to lobby for the plan.

Trump arrived to the West Wing just before noon on Tuesday for talks with business leaders about the tax reform plan. He has spent the bulk of the past two mornings inside his private White House residence, including in talks with his legal team about the Russia proceedings.

His time in his top floor residence has also been spent on the phone with certain longtime friends and advisers, each of whom has offered varied advice on handling the Russia probe.

Some have recommended he fire Mueller, a move the President has considered in the past. But for now he's rejected those suggestions at the advice of his legal team and top White House aides.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans downplayed the prospects that Trump could fire Mueller, noting that step would require sign-off by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Russia probe.

"The efforts that are out there are to circumvent the President firing the special counsel -- he can't do that," said Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee who is leading his own investigation into Russian election interference.

But asked whether he could ensure Trump and his allies would not apply pressure on Rosenstein to dismiss Mueller, Burr was noncommittal.

"I can't be confident on anything," he said.

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