White House aides fret over Trump’s Russia probe obsession

President Donald Trump received three separate assurances from former FBI Director James Comey that he personally was not under investigation—but may now be under investigation because he couldn’t let his obsession go.

The greatest threat to Trump and his presidency now, say administration officials and outside advisers, comes from his own conduct and obsessive behavior after he took office. While congressional and FBI investigations may prove Trump or his team broke laws before he took office, his advisers say they’re more worried that the things he’s done since then may have left him exposed to obstruction of justice or other charges.

Trump, for months, has bristled almost daily at the ongoing probes. He has sometimes, without prompting, injected “I’m not under investigation” into conversations with associates and allies. He has watched hours of TV coverage every day – sometimes even storing morning news shows on his TiVo to watch in the evening – and complained non-stop.

“You may be the first president in history to go down because you can’t stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that if you just were quiet would clear you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said last weekend.

Just as he has publicly on Twitter, Trump has told friends and associates that the investigation is a “witch hunt” and that others are out to get him. “It’s basically all he talks about on the phone,” said one adviser who has spoken with Trump and his top aides.

Aides have tried to change the subject, with little luck. Advisers have tried to buck the president up by telling him to be patient, agreeing that it is a “witch hunt” and urging him to just let it play out – and reassuring him “eventually you will be cleared,” in the words of one.

But none of that has changed Trump’s response.

“The frustration he feels is he fully well knows there was no collusion with Russia. And yet he’s been on the hot seat about it for six months,” said Barry Bennett, a top campaign aide who continues to have ties to the White House. “He’s been told, you’re not under investigation, and yet he still wakes up every day to read he’s under investigation. It’s really hard to be accused of being a traitor and take your lawyer’s advice to shut up and not talk about it.”

Two people close to Trump note that he has an obsessive personality – whether about businessmen who wronged him over the years, his years-long and fruitless quest to prove President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States to reporters who have written negative stories about him. One transition official said Trump lashed out at reporters over old stories within a day of winning the election in November.

Aides say they fear his incendiary tweets and public comments have spurred “countless” leaks of damaging information, in the words of one. Chief strategist Steve Bannon has told others that he believes the FBI is now out to get the Trump administration.

They have urged Trump to stop meddling – but he won’t. Under oath, Comey testified that Trump asked him to consider letting go of an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign in February. Trump ordered top aides to leave the room, according to testimony from both Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, before he made the request.

That was after Trump asked Comey for “loyalty” and repeatedly sought assurances that he wasn’t under investigation. He later asked national security officials to make statements they didn’t believe to be truthful, according to the Washington Post.

Then, again frustrated with the investigation, he fired Comey several months later, according to several aides and advisers – and told contradicting stories about his decision. “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt.

“I faced great pressure because of Russia, that’s taken off,” Trump told Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office, which was first reported by the New York Times. That, according to several people who spoke to Trump, was the real reason he fired Comey.

Two days later, angry that might damage him, and after fuming about him non-stop he threatened Comey with “tapes” on a Friday morning, a threat that Comey later said spurred him to release memos of his meetings with Trump. One Comey associate at the time said the tweet “amazed” him.

“I woke up in the middle of the night Monday thinking that there might be corroboration for our conversation,” Comey said under oath. “And my judgment was that I needed to get that out in the public square.”

Trump now has begun fuming about special counsel Robert Mueller, particularly after he hired several criminal experts with ties to Democrats. Trump has told associates he might fire Mueller, though they don’t believe he will. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Trump was under investigation for obstruction – and that Mueller wanted to interview the national security officials who were reportedly asked to make false statements.

Trump woke up Thursday morning and appeared to question Mueller’s integrity on Twitter. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!” he wrote. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters she believed the president was responding to the Post story.

“He is totally in a box now,” one friend said. “And it might make him want to fire Mueller more.”

“If he didn’t send about 15 tweets that he’s done, he’s been in much better shape than he is right now,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “I kept thinking he would change from these self-destructive tendencies, but he may be the first president in history who brings himself down because he just can’t help himself.”

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