‘Open warfare’: Donald Trump betrayed
DONALD Trump is acting like a worried man.
Reeling from the news that his longtime fixer and personal lawyer Michael Cohen secretly recorded him - and now seems prepared to co-operate with investigators - Mr Trump lashed out at the Russia investigation with renewed fury this morning.
Echoing his previous complaints, the president called Robert Mueller's investigation a "rigged witch hunt" under the control of "13 angry Democrats".
At this point it is customary for us to point out that Mr Mueller is a Republican, not a Democrat. The same is true of his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who started the investigation and now oversees it), FBI Director Christopher Wray and Mr Wray's predecessor, James Comey, whose abrupt sacking at Mr Trump's command sparked Mr Mueller's appointment as special counsel.
While there are some Democrats working on Mr Mueller's staff, the investigation is being run by Mr Trump's own Justice Department.
BEHIND THE FURY
So, what prompted the president's latest attempt to discredit Mr Mueller? There are a couple of possibilities.
Shortly before Mr Trump's tweets this morning, the FBI released redacted documents from its application to surveil Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser on Mr Trump's 2016 presidential campaign whom American law enforcement believed was acting as a Russian agent.
Several months ago, Mr Trump's Republican allies alleged a surveillance warrant against Mr Page had been granted improperly.
They claimed the FBI had justified its request using the now infamous Steele dossier, without telling the FISA court Mr Steele's work was opposition research intended to harm Mr Trump's candidacy.
The documents released today clearly show the Republicans were wrong, and Mr Steele's motive was included in the application.
This was an important development, but was it enough to set off Mr Trump? Probably not.
His rant is far more likely to have been triggered by a piece of news that broke yesterday, which is where Michael Cohen enters the picture.
Until recently, Mr Cohen was Mr Trump's personal lawyer, and had a reputation for being his "fixer" - the man who would make inconvenient problems go away. For example, Mr Cohen was responsible for quashing stories about Mr Trump's alleged affairs.
The Justice Department is currently investigating Mr Cohen, and one such affair is back in the spotlight.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported Mr Cohen had secretly taped a private conversation with Mr Trump, in which they discussed the possibility of paying off a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal.
Mr Trump's new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, actually reacted positively to the tape, saying it helped the president.
"The transaction that Michael is talking about on the tape never took place, but what's important is, if it did take place, the president said it has to be done correctly and it has to be done by check," Mr Guiliani said.
But its release raised new, disturbing questions for the White House, which has long worried about Mr Cohen turning on his former boss. Foremost among them: What if there are more tapes?
Mr Cohen was ejected from Mr Trump's orbit in April after it emerged he was "under criminal investigation" for his business dealings. Police raided his office and hotel room and seized records from them, including some communications with the president.
Since then, the investigation has stalled somewhat, as Mr Cohen's lawyers have argued with prosecutors over which of the seized documents are privileged communications with clients and therefore untouchable.
Obviously, Mr Trump needed to cut Mr Cohen loose, but he made a public effort to retain his former lawyer's loyalty, and absolutely unloaded on the New York Times when it reported he had treated Mr Cohen badly for years.
Here is the full, glorious diatribe.
"The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don't speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will 'flip'. They use non-existent 'sources' and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked and respected. Most people will flip if the government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don't see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!"
Ms Haberman responded by saying her story seemed "to have touched a nerve".
Mr Cohen, for his part, was widely seen as one of Mr Trump's most loyal supporters, having guarded his boss's secrets for years.
"I'm the guy who stops the leaks. I'm the guy who protects the president and the family. I'm the guy who would take a bullet for the president," he has said in the past.
But with the pressure of potential criminal charges weighing on his mind, Mr Cohen has recently changed his tune dramatically.
In early July, during an interview with ABC News, he was explicitly asked where his loyalties lay.
"My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty, and always will," he responded. "I put family and country first."
Interviewer George Stephanopoulos then reminded him of his former pledge to "take a bullet" for Mr Trump.
"To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son and this country have my first loyalty," Mr Cohen said.
He must have known that answer would send chills through the president's legal team.
Making matters worse, Mr Cohen also took a less-than-subtle shot at Mr Trump's war against the supposed FBI "witch hunt".
"I don't agree with those who demonise or vilify the FBI. I respect the FBI as an institution, as well as their agents," he said.
When the news of Mr Cohen's secret recording emerged yesterday, Mr Trump finally unleashed a flash of hostility towards his former confidant.
"I can't believe Michael would do this to me," he reportedly said in private.
In public, the president was harsher, calling Mr Cohen's conduct "inconceivable" and "perhaps illegal".
For the record, the government did not "break in" to Mr Cohen's office - it obtained a search warrant. And New York law does not require both parties to consent to a recording, so Mr Cohen's tape probably wasn't illegal.
Ms Haberman - yes, her again - said Mr Trump's tweet was a signal of "open warfare" between the pair, and she was far from alone.
"The blunt reality is that Michael Cohen is very willing to testify against Donald Trump if it comes to that. He does not feel any loyalty anymore to the president," NBC reporter Katy Tur said.
"This is a man who had once told me, sorry, repeatedly has told me in the past that he would take a bullet for Donald Trump. That is not the case any longer. He feels that the president has run him over with a bus, that the loyalty he felt towards Trump was not returned. And now he's very willing to tell what he knows."
Lawyer Jeffrey Cohen (no relation to Michael) said Mr Cohen probably recorded Mr Trump as "insurance".
"The reason is that he must have smelled that he would need some cover at some point. Probably just dealing with Trump, seeing how he twists and turns, and how he turns on people, I guess it was some sort of insurance for himself if Donald Trump turned on him," he told Newsweek.
Meanwhile, Axios reports Mr Cohen has been privately questioning Mr Trump's fitness to be president, particularly since his controversial joint press conference with Vladimir Putin last week.
It is yet another ominous sign.
Mr Mueller's investigation is steadily working inward, towards Mr Trump's inner circle.
Having already secured the co-operation of the president's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, Mr Mueller appears to be pressuring former campaign manager Paul Manafort to take a deal as well.
So far, Mr Manafort is refusing to budge.
This is how investigations often work. The authorities will "flip" someone relatively unimportant, and use the information they gain from that person to gradually work their way up the chain, repeating the process until they run out of targets.
Mr Cohen is about as high on that chain as you can get without having the surname Trump.
The president's public statements indicate he is worried about Mr Cohen turning on him.
"Most people will flip if the government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don't see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!" he said during that rant against Ms Haberman we mentioned earlier.
So the questions are obvious. What, if anything, does Mr Cohen know? Does he have information that could imperil Mr Trump? And if he does, will he co-operate with investigators?
The man who faithfully protected Mr Trump for years is now his biggest threat.