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Widening Russia probe prompts shake-ups in Trump’s legal, communications staff

Marc E. Kasowitz, personal attorney for President Trump, makes a statement to the media during a June 8 news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The chaos engulfing President Trump and his orbit intensified Friday, as Trump moved to shake up his legal and White House communications teams in response to the widening special counsel probe into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian government election meddling and a stalled health-care push that threatens his entire legislative agenda.

At the same time that the investigation appears to be broadening in scope, his longtime personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, will step back from his central role in the president’s defense. John M. Dowd, a seasoned Washington attorney with a focus on white-collar crime, will take on the lead role in Trump’s defense. Mark Corallo, a longtime GOP operative who had served as a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, resigned Thursday.

Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump is considering installing an ally and wealthy financier, Anthony Scaramucci, as his communications director. He is scheduled to meet with the president in the Oval Office at 10 a.m. on Friday, according to a senior White House official.

The move could touch off another round of intense backbiting and tension among his senior staff, especially with chief of staff Reince Priebus, with whom he has clashed in the past. The communications post has remained open since it was vacated by Michael Dubke in May.

The president has become agitated by the possibility that special counsel Robert Mueller might begin looking into Trump and his family’s personal finances. In an interview this week with the New York Times, the president issued a warning to Mueller that such a move would be a “violation.”

“Let’s go back to what the purpose of the investigation was: Russian interference in our election,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, speaking on Fox News on Friday morning. She added, “Where is this going and are Americans comfortable with that — with the taxpayers funding this, with this going off all types of chutes and ladders?”

Trump’s legal team has begun working to undermine the special counsel probe, including investigating ways to highlight conflicts of interest in the special investigator team, The Washington Post reported on Thursday. The president has also inquired about his pardon authority.

After the story was published, one of Trump’s attorneys, Dowd, said it was “not true” and “nonsense.”

The idea that Trump would proactively pardon people involved in the Russia investigation was immediately criticized by the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russian meddling in the election and possible Trump campaign collusion.

“The possibility that the President is considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations is extremely disturbing,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement. “Pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line.”

The White House has struggled to remain focused on its agenda, amid the constant drumbeat of the Russia investigation. The president himself has only fueled the Russia frenzy, giving an interview on Wednesday in which he talked extensively about the probe.

Last week, the White House announced that another attorney, Ty Cobb, would join the White House to help manage their response to the investigation internally.

Meanwhile, if Scaramucci is brought into the fold, it would represent a significant shake-up for a communications shop that has struggled to amplify the president’s message on the administration’s core economic and national security priorities.

Scaramucci, a Trump campaign loyalist backed by Trump’s children, was slated to join the White House in another capacity, but he had challenges resolving ethical conflicts associated with his hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, which he sold to a Chinese conglomerate with ties to the government just before Trump’s inauguration. Trump has also been impressed by Scaramucci’s frequent appearances as a defender on cable news.

On Friday morning, when asked if Scaramucci would join the White House, Conway praised him but did not confirm that the decision was settled.

“All I can say is in speaking with the president and others that, you know, we have a great communications team already,” Conway said. “Anthony Scaramucci is somebody who has been an incredible asset to President Trump all during the campaign, the transition, and now he is one of the killers on TV who goes out there, thinks the president is being treated very unfairly, and we don’t get any of the economic news out there, even though our press and communications shop tries.”

“The president has confidence in all of the people who work for him, and we know that Anthony is someone who is a friend to the administration,” she added.